Libraries’ Glass Escalator

12 Mar

This post has been a long time coming for me. It’s been delayed in no small part because I wasn’t sure that what our profession needed was more “insights” from white straight cis-dudes… but with that reservation presented at the outset, here we go.

If you’re a librarian, or work in libraries, take a minute or two to read “A New Obstacle for Professional Women: The Glass Escalator“, by Forbes’ Jenna Goudreau. A good pull-quote:

“Men that enter female-dominated professions tend to be promoted at faster rates than women in those professions,” explains Caren Goldberg, Ph.D., an assistant professor of management at American University’s Kogod School of Business who has researched the phenomenon. “When you look at senior management, you tend to see men disproportionately represented. So while there may be less than 5% of all nurses who are male, you see a much larger percentage than 5% in senior-level positions like hospital administrators.”

Research shows that men in female-dominated jobs tend to fare better even than men in male-dominated jobs, and they typically earn higher salaries, receive more promotions, and achieve higher levels within organizations than their female counterparts.

Glass escalators: no matter how pressed a library is for space, they always seem to make room for one of these.

My first week on the job here — and I wasn’t a librarian yet, I didn’t even have my degree — an older, male librarian cracked a joke about me being director one day. I lacked (and still lack) any such ambitions, and I found it jarring. Why say that? Was it my MPA? Was I just that naturally charming? There’s no way for me to know if that comment was made because I’m male — and the librarian in question wasn’t someone who made a habit of throwing sexist comments around — but if nothing else, it seems really damned unlikely that it’s the sort of thing a woman in her first week of a paraprofessional position in a male-dominated industry is going to receive, even from another woman.

The figure that tends to get bandied about for the gender split in our profession is about 80/20 in favor of women, but it blows my mind when I hear people talk about how we need to make the profession “more welcoming” to men. I mean, how many of our library directors and administrators are male? Our conference speakers? Our “rock stars“? While there is some skew in favor of women, few if any match the overall proportions of the profession. And the gender pay gap seems alive and well in both the “information” and “education” industries.  So since male librarians* are already getting more than our share of money, power, and prestige, I think our profession can safely stop worrying about us.***

In fact, I’ll go further and say that any male librarian who does not take a step back and consider that the raises, promotions, and laurels he receives come to him easier than they do to his female colleagues is doing himself, his peers, and his profession a disservice. It’s not easy — we’re sure as hell trained to avoid even the vaguest inkling that we might benefit from something we didn’t earn — but it’s important. There may not be any one item on your resume or CV that you can point to and say, “I got that because I’m a dude,” but to steal a very apt metaphor from the realm of climate change discussion: you can’t point to any one of Mark McGwire’s home runs and say he hit that one due to steroids, either. But steroids helped him hit more home runs, undoubtedly.

Being male is a huge advantage for your library career. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can stop worrying about drawing in more male librarians and work more on providing gender equity within the profession.

And I’m betting we’ll have better content at our conferences, too.


* Let’s talk, for a second, about the whole “guybrarian” (or “libratorr”** or whatever) thing. It needs to go, because it’s rooted in the following misogynist syllogism:

  • Being a “librarian” is inherently feminine.
  • Being feminine, especially when you present as male, is bad.
  • Therefore, if you present as male you should call yourself something other than “librarian”.

It’s the inverse of the problematic practice of coming up with new words for women who perform traditionally male jobs. So seriously: cut it out. You’re a goddamn librarian.

** Note: anyone who decides to link the Penny Arcade comic that spawned that term is really only emphasizing the ubiquity of the syllogism and the mindset behind it. I mean, we’re talking Penny Arcade, here.

*** I should clarify that while I’m ranting mainly about presented gender here, the “us” that libraryland can safely stop worrying about are white, straight, cis-male librarians. There are major issues with diversity in this profession, but needing more people who match my demographic spread ain’t among ’em.


EDIT: Thank you, Nina PiccoliCharlotte WilliamsAmy Buckland, and Aliqae Geraci. Your comments and corrections made the post far, far better than it would otherwise have been. Mea culpa, that I didn’t include this when I first published the post.

14 Responses to “Libraries’ Glass Escalator”

  1. Jesse Koennecke March 13, 2013 at 10:16 am #

    Great post, Jim.

  2. Marge Loch-Wouters March 16, 2013 at 8:46 pm #

    OMG, thank you. And I freaking mean it. I’m a youth librarian and have watched for decades as almost EVERY male who has run for election to an award committee or leadership position has been elected. It is inevitable. I don’t hate on y’s; it’s just soooo frustrating to see women passed over again and again. As an old line feminist (now) but a young turk radical in the ’70s, I’ve watched this fire burn to embers. Thanks for blowing on them and bringing this conversation back up front along with alot of the young women speaking out again.

    • Jim DelRosso March 17, 2013 at 10:13 pm #

      Thank you so much! It means a lot to get that kind of feedback on this. :)

  3. Amber March 25, 2013 at 1:20 pm #

    I’m so glad you said this. It needed to be said.

  4. Casey Koons March 26, 2013 at 10:36 am #

    Excellent post! I wonder…what do you think male librarians can do to combat this appalling trend?

    • Jim DelRosso March 27, 2013 at 1:53 pm #


      Being aware is a good step, but what you can do to push back against it depends on where you’re at. It might be speaking out when folks start asking the “what can we do for the men?” kind of questions, or it might be being mindful of this tendency when supervising folks, serving on search committees, or just when you’re working with colleagues of any gender.

      The biggest thing, though, is listen. Folks who aren’t male have a lot to say on this topic, and dudes should pay attention. Like I said at the top of this, I feel weird adding my white cisdude insights to the conversation for exactly that reason. The fact that no one’s really tried to shout me down is, frankly, another indicator of the profession’s male privilege.

      • Casey Koons March 31, 2013 at 12:58 pm #

        I’m sensitive to your point, and certainly agree that listening is vital. But I’d don’t think that anyone should be excluded from participating in a discourse, especially if we need that discourse to change. I’m very grateful you reflected on this, as it has inspired me and many others to think about this issue as it comes into our own lives and experience.

      • Jim DelRosso April 2, 2013 at 7:29 pm #

        Well, listening is being part of the discourse. And in a world that is so heavily skewed to supporting our interests — and I’m talking both within and beyond the librarianship sphere — white straight cisdudes have a ton of space to step back and listen without fear of being silenced.

        I’ve enjoyed this discussion as well. Take care!

    • Jim DelRosso March 30, 2013 at 11:20 pm #

      Oh, and when you mess up — and we all have, and will, mess up — take responsibility for it, apologize for it, and do your best to learn from it.


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