Conversations about gender relations, bias, and appropriate behavior have bubbled up all over the technology sector recently. We have seen conferences adopt codes of conduct that strive to create welcoming atmospheres. We have also seen cases of bias and harassment, cases that may once have been tolerated or ignored, now being identified and condemned. These conversations, like gender itself, are not simple or binary but being able to listen respectfully and talk honestly about uncomfortable topics offers hope that positive change is possible.
On October 28th Sarah Houghton, the director of the San Rafael Public Library, moderated a panel on gender in library technology at the Internet Librarian conference. In today’s post I’d like to share my small contributions to the panel discussion that day and also to share how my understanding of the issues changed after the discussion there. It is my hope that more conversations—more talking and more listening—about gender issue in library technology will be sparked from this start.
Part I: Internet Librarian Panel on Gender
Our panel’s intent was to invite librarians into a public conversation about gender issues. In the Internet Librarian program our invitation read:
Join us for a lively panel and audience discussion about the challenges of gender differences in technology librarianship. The topics of fairness and bias with both genders have appeared in articles, blogs, etc and this panel of women and men who work in libraries and gender studies briefly share personal experiences, then engage the audience about experiences and how best to increase understanding between the genders specifically in the area of technology work in librarianship. 1
Panelists: Sarah Houghton, Ryan Claringbole, Emily Clasper, Kate Kosturski, Lisa Rabey, John Bultena, Tatum Lindsay, and Nicholas Schiller
My invitation to participate on the stemmed from blog posts I wrote about how online conversations about gender issues can go off the rails and become disasters. I used my allotted time to share some simple suggestions I developed observing these conversations. Coming from my personal (white cis straight male) perspective, I paid attention to things that I and my male colleagues do and say that result in unintended offense, silencing, and anger in our female colleagues. By reverse engineering these conversational disasters, I attempted to learn from unfortunate mistakes and build better conversations. Assuming honest good intentions, following these suggestions can help us avoid contention and build more empathy and trust.
- Listen generously. Context and perspective are vital to these discussions. If we’re actively cultivating diverse perspectives then we are inviting ideas that conflict with our assumptions. It’s more effective to assume these ideas come from unfamiliar but valid contexts than to assume they are automatically unreasonable. By deferring judgement until after new ideas have been assimilated and understood we can avoid silencing voices that we need to hear.
- Defensive responses can be more harmful than offensive responses. No one likes to feel called on the carpet, but the instinctive responses we can give when we feel blamed or accused can be worse than simply giving offense. Defensive denials can lead to others feeling silenced, which is much more damaging and divisive than simple disagreement. It can be the difference between communicating “you and I disagree on this matter” and communicating “you are wrong and don’t get a voice in this conversation.” That kind of silencing and exclusion can be worse than simply giving offense.
- It is okay to disagree or to be wrong. Conversations about gender are full of fear. People are afraid to speak up for fear of reprisal. People are afraid to say the wrong thing and be revealed as a secret misogynist. People are afraid. The good news is that conversations where all parties feel welcome, respected, and listened to can be healing. Because context and perspective matter so much in how we address issues, once we accept the contexts and perspectives of others, we are more likely to receive acceptance of our own perspectives and contexts. Given an environment of mutual respect and inclusion, we don’t need to be afraid of holding unpopular views. These are complex issues and once trust is established, complex positions are acceptable.
This is what I presented at the panel session and I still stand behind these suggestions. They can be useful tools for building better conversations between people with good intentions. Specifically, they can help men in our field avoid all-too-common barriers to productive conversation.
That day I listened and learned a lot from the audience and from my fellow panelists. I shifted my priorities. I still think cultivating better conversations is an important goal. I still want to learn how to be a better listener and colleague. I think these are skills that don’t just happen, but need to be intentionally cultivated. That said, I came in to the panel believing that the most important gender related issue in library technology was finding ways for well-intentioned colleagues to communicate effectively about an uncomfortable problem. Listening to my colleagues tell their stories, I learned that there are more direct and pressing gender issues in libraries.
Part II: After the Panel
As I listened to my fellow panelists tell their stories and then as I listened to people in the audience share their experiences, no one else seemed particularly concerned about well-intentioned people having misunderstandings or about breakdowns in communication. Instead, they related a series of harrowing personal experiences where men (and women, but mostly men) were directly harassing, intentionally abusive, and strategically cruel in ways that are having a very large impact on the daily work, career paths, and the quality of life of my female colleagues. I assumed that since this kind of harassment clearly violates standard HR policies that the problem is adequately addressed by existing administrative policies. That assumption is incorrect.
It is easy to ignore what we don’t see and I don’t see harassment taking place in libraries and I don’t often hear it discussed. It has been easy to underestimate the prevalence and impact it has on many of my colleagues. Listening to librarians.
Then, after the conference one evening, a friend of mine was harassed on the street and I had another assumption challenged. It happened quickly, but a stranger on the street harassed my friend while I watched in stunned passivity. 2 I arrived at the conference feeling positive about my grasp of the issues and also feeling confident about my role as an ally. I left feeling shaken and doubting both my thoughts and my actions.
In response to the panel and its aftermath, I’ve composed three more points to reflect what I learned. These aren’t suggestions, like I brought to the panel, instead they are realizations or statements. I’m obviously not an expert on the topic and I’m not speaking from a seat of authority. I’m relating stories and experiences told by others and they tell them much better than I do. In the tradition of geeks and hackers now that I have learned something new I’m sharing it with the community in hopes that my experience moves the project forward. It is my hope that better informed and more experienced voices will take this conversation farther than I am able to. These three realizations may be obvious to some, because they were not obvious to me, it seems useful to clearly articulate them.
- Intentional and targeted harassment of women is a significant problem in the library technology field. While subtle micro aggressions, problem conversations, and colleagues who deny that significant gender issues exist in libraries are problematic, these issues are overshadowed by direct and intentional harassing behavior targeting gender identity or sex. The clear message I heard at the panel was that workplace harassment is a very real and very current threat to women working in library technology fields.
- This harassment is not visible to those not targeted by it. It is easy to ignore what we do not see. Responses to the panel included many library technology women sharing their experiences and commenting that it was good to hear others’ stories. Even though the experience of workplace harassment was common, those who spoke of it reported feelings of isolation. While legislation and human resources polices clearly state harassment is unacceptable and unlawful, it still happens and when it happens the target can be isolated by the experience. Those of us who participate in library conferences, journals, and online communities can help pierce this isolation by cultivating opportunities to talk about these issues openly and public. By publicly talking about gender issues, we can thwart isolation and make the problems more visible to those who are not direct targets of harassment.
- This is a cultural problem, not only an individual problem. While no one point on the gender spectrum has a monopoly on either perpetrating or being the target of workplace harassment, the predominant narrative in our panel discussion was men harassing women. Legally speaking, these need to be treated as individual acts, but as a profession, we can address the cultural aspects of the issue. Something in our library technology culture is fostering an environment where women are systematically exposed to bad behavior from men.
In the field of Library Technology, we spend a lot of our time and brain power intentionally designing user experiences and assessing how users interact with our designs. Because harassment of some of our own is pervasive and cultural, I suggest we turn the same attention and intentionality to designing a workplace culture that is responsive to the needs of all of us who work here. I look forward to reading conference presentations, journal articles, and online discussions where these problems are publicly identified and directly addressed rather than occurring in isolation or being ignored.