A Career of Our Own

Academic librarians reflect on gender and leadership

March 9, 2015

A Career of Our Own

In 2004, College and Research Libraries published my study “Is the Revolution Over: Gender, Economic, and Professional Parity in Academic Library Leadership Positions,” which found that more than half of the top administrators at Carnegie doctoral/research extensive university libraries were women. American Libraries recently asked me to revisit the topic of gender and academic librarianship for Women’s History Month.

The second-wave feminism movement from the mid-20th century opened doors for women in educational and career advancement, particularly in academia, thanks in large part to Title IX legislation that prohibited discrimination at higher educational institutions. In 1972, the year Title IX was implemented, women held only 4.6% of high-level administrative positions at research libraries. By 2004, that percentage had grown to 52.1%. This transformation from a woman-dominated (but male-led) profession to one led by women was the result, in part, of ALA’s determination to provide female librarians with the chance to gain leadership skills through committee work and the successful class-action antidiscrimination suits filed at university libraries.

An impact on the profession

In 2012, I surveyed more than 200 senior female academic library administrators about their perceptions of feminism and the impact the feminist movement had on the profession. My results were documented in a chapter of Leadership in Academic Libraries Today (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014). Some of these observations were self-evident: Salary equity was still an issue for women, and most academic library administrators reported to female directors or deans but to male provosts and presidents. Moreover, the majority of academic librarians (although not those in the 25–34 age group) were very aware of the impact of the women’s movement on the profession, though they did not always understand that legislation had driven these changes.

Other observations were more surprising. Ageism and family care issues appeared to be larger problems than gender discrimination, and the majority of women credited technology as a major reason for their career advancement.

Also surprising were the comments of these administrators concerning leadership. A decade ago there was real debate in library literature over whether men and women led differently. Many of the women surveyed remarked that, unlike their male colleagues, they preferred a nonhierarchical form of management. These remarks resembled the observations made by Paula T. Kaufman, librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Mortenson Center for International Library Programs, in the early 1990s. Kaufman posited in a 1993 article in Journal of Library Administration that as women rose to greater positions of power within the profession, they would bring a “values-based” model of leadership.

For American Libraries, I talked to a handful of female academic library administrators at various stages of their careers to ask them about the women’s movement and choices they’ve made. They were:

  • Kristin Antelman, university librarian at Caltech, who has been in the profession for 25 years.
  • Annette F. Bailey, assistant director of electronic resources and emerging technology services at Virginia Tech, and a librarian for 11 years.
  • Anne R. Kenney, Carl A. Kroch university librarian at Cornell University Library, who has been a librarian for 35 years.
  • Kim Leeder Reed, director of library services at College of Western Idaho, and in the field for eight years.
  • Mary Mallery, associate dean for technical services at Montclair (N.J.) State University, and a librarian for 20 years.
  • Leslie Morgan, head of teaching and instructional services and first-year experience librarian at Hesburgh Libraries at University of Notre Dame, Indiana, and in the profession for 11 years.

    Several female academic professionals interviewed for the feature.
    Several female academic professionals interviewed for the feature.

How did you begin your career in librarianship?

Mallery: Librarianship is a second career for me. I was working for a corporate software consulting firm and had two little children. One of the reasons I chose librarianship is because academia is, for the most part, child-friendly, as opposed to corporate America. In every university I have worked, there has been a woman president, which has contributed to an environment supportive of families.

Kenney: I didn’t begin my career in the library; I began as an archivist. When I moved to Cornell in 1987, I started out in preservation, then moved into doing research on digital imaging. The archival world in the 1980s was about 50% women and 50% men at the time. It was probably a more conducive climate in which to thrive than the library world, which continues to be dominated by women.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Morgan: I consider myself a womanist—the term coined by author Alice Walker—given the communal nature of what being a woman in society is. Black women see themselves as part of a community. We stand up for our families and communities. I don’t care much for a hierarchal management style. The most success I’ve had as a manager is when there is a sense of transparency and things are driven from the bottom up.

Reed: I don’t think of myself as a feminist. To claim that term, in my mind, would be to imply that I know more about the history and politics of feminism than I do. What I do know is that I have the privilege of living and working in a world where I can be a strong female leader and accomplish amazing things at my institution, all with the support and friendship of my male colleagues and superiors.

Bailey: I wouldn’t call myself a feminist.

What are your thoughts about opportunities for the younger generation now coming into libraries?

Kenney: Well, they are the hipsters—the cool kids. My greatest fear is that they won’t see administration as something worth the effort. I try to spend time with new librarians, especially as the cadre of Association of Research Libraries leaders retires, to help them see the possibility of leading an organization. It is unfortunate that librarianship can be so driven by competition rather than collaboration. We need new perspectives about what needs to be done and a real discussion about the central roles libraries have played and will play in the future.

Morgan: The generation of librarians joining the profession since I’ve been a librarian are rich with ample opportunities to go beyond the traditional positions, given technology’s influence. For example, a traditional reference librarian in an academic setting can now contribute more purposefully to the teaching and learning objectives of students in collaboration with various academic units.

Antelman: I am seeing a better gender balance between women and men going into librarianship. There are now almost as many men as women coming into the profession. The younger people have a technical bent. They are fantastic librarians, always willing to try new and different things. My impression, though, is that not enough women are willing to be mobile in their early career, especially if they have a family. If you want to advance, you need to move around to gain experience.

What kind of things can academic library administrators do better for their employees? How can we lead better?

Reed: We can put the people who work in our libraries first. I am a strong believer in servant leadership, and I see my role as supporting the staffers who work in my library. More and more, they are seeking better work-life balance, and part of my job is to understand, empathize, and help them get there. Because the happier they are, the more committed they’ll be to their job and our organization.

Bailey: The problems that exist are more in how things are managed at the university level. For example, Virginia Tech has taken steps to assist faculty with work-life balance. The university introduced a “stop the clock” policy that extends the tenure clock for new parents. There are many more things libraries could do to support the profession, however, such as daycare.

How did you get your technology skills? Did your knowledge of technology help you become an administrator?

Mallery: My feeling is that it didn’t. As a manager, technology will get you only so far. A director’s job is political. You need to work well with people and, especially in a collective bargaining environment, understand union contracts. The provost doesn’t want to talk about library systems; he wants to see the big picture.

Antelman: My first professional job was in 1990. I worked in systems and it gave me a lot of chances to take leadership positions, because people were seeing that technology was the nerve center of the organization. It touched everything we were doing. I taught myself technical skills. Libraries at that time didn’t have dedicated systems administrators or programmers.

Bailey: I am largely self-taught. Some skills I learned from getting a master’s degree in library of science, taking classes online and in-person at Virginia Tech. My sense is that most of my male colleagues with a technology background have a more formal education in computer science.