This year’s Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Conference, held March 15–18 in Pittsburgh, examined the ongoing gender disparities in academic library leadership, a phenomenon worsened by women leaving the workforce—including the library profession—at record rates amid the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent Great Resignation.
During the panel discussion “Building Bridges into Library Leadership,” five women who were recently appointed to top positions within their institutions shared experiences, challenges, and advice, highlighting the importance of expanding opportunities for women.
Rachel Rubin, dean of libraries and archives at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, in Canada, encouraged those in hiring roles to reexamine how libraries recruit and hire staff, especially as they encounter more and more résumés with gaps—a common trend among women reentering the job market.
“You may see someone with leadership potential, but they had to take a massive step back these last couple of years,” Rubin said. “Let’s lift them back up. You can say that it is okay that you had to take some time off.”
In addition to reevaluating the approach to recruitment and hiring, the panelists also stressed the importance of becoming more intentional about promoting and retaining women.
Tara Baillargeon, dean of university libraries at Marquette University in Milwaukee, cited recent data from McKinsey that suggests that for every 100 men who are promoted or hired into managerial roles, only 87 women–and 82 women of color–are granted the same opportunity. At this rate, she noted, it would take about 130 years to achieve equality.
“It brought to light how important it is for workplaces to provide flexibility, especially for women,” Baillargeon said, noting that they are more likely to be caregivers. “Organizations that have flexible work environments and DEI initiatives tend to retain women the most.”
Alicia Salaz, vice provost and university librarian at the University of Oregon in Eugene, said it is important for women in leadership to negotiate for an executive assistant.
“A lot of male executives have achieved success due to an executive assistant or spouse or partner,” Salaz said. “We should set women up for the same success. Organizations should budget for that and provide access to that.”
The panelists agreed on the importance of identifying and maintaining quality mentors, especially those who can provide encouragement in times of self-doubt. Many noted they were often their own greatest barriers to success. Peer mentorship and support, they said, helped them build confidence and resiliency in rooms where they were underrepresented, while avoiding imposter syndrome or the “glass cliff”—a phenomenon in which women or minorities are promoted for leadership roles when the risk of failure is higher.
As an example, Hilary Seo, dean of libraries at Iowa State University in Ames, said she has noticed women often being hired for interim instead of permanent leadership roles, presumably to test their skills or temporarily fix institutional issues.
“If you’re there to fix something, question it,” Seo told attendees.
While the panelists said there is still much work to do toward gender parity in library leadership and beyond, they acknowledged that their new positions will allow them to play an essential role in helping to bridge the gap and shape new ways of leadership.
“My mentor once said to me that when you’re the leader, you can define what leadership looks like,” Salaz said. “It was an epiphany for me that I could do leadership in a different way from what had been modeled by male leaders. It allowed me to envision possibilities that I had not thought about.”