Too few male librarians or lack of diversity?

Women undeniably predominate in the profession of librarian and the library workplace. Their average age is quite high. Library and Information Science programmes lack both gender and ethnic diversity. Participation at library conferen-ces and courses reveals the same tendencies. What can we do to correct such imbalances and what is the key to promoting diversity? And is there even a desire to do so? Sometimes I think that the profession is plagued by neophobia (fear of change).

There seems to be a tremendous fear among librarians and academics that both the institution and the profession will somehow lose their status if major changes are made.

Services for heterogeneous users

Libraries these days, at least those within academia, serve as centres of expertise for learning and information, as digital and physical meeting places for our users. Librarians must also provide access to various types of resources and services, not least electronic ones. The profession badly needs an injection of new expertise – more teachers, systems specialists, web editors and librarians with advanced digital skills. As the older generation of librarians retires, new graduates will be in great demand. Our users are increasingly heterogeneous, with widely divergent needs. Recruitment efforts must reach out to people with educational backgrounds, skills and experiences acquired beyond the borders of Sweden.

Being a librarian should be gender-neutral

With respect to the actual nature of the work, being a librarian is more gender-neutral than nursing and other female-dominated professions. At first glance, librarianship does not evoke associations with traditional feminine values. The more the focus on service is stressed, however, the stronger the connection. Without disparaging these aspects of the profession, the importance of advanced information and communications skills should be emphasised, not to mention the wide range of tasks that must be performed at a library. That way the need for service will not detract from the role that libraries should play in the society of the future.

The dominating stereotypes

Images of librarians are laden with ingrained stereotypes, which flourish and stand in the way of progress despite their lack of reality and substance. The classic stereotype is that of a middle-aged or elderly woman with glasses and a bun whose chief function is to maintain discipline and order. She may be described as irascible and as a guardian of morality or the antithesis of sexuality. Descriptions of male librarians are few and far between, but a classic stereotype is that they are well-read, intellectual and ‘giants of scholarship’.

Such a depiction clearly refers to the assistant librarians of another era. That a library may need professionals other than librarians is a little known fact. IT instructors, computer technicians, web assistants and library assistants are often integral to the operation of a well-run library. So they must be brought out of the shadows. Another frequently cited need is to publicise the activities that are conducted behind the scenes at a library. Many borrowers think that the purpose of a library begins and ends at the circulation desk.

Stereotypes, or the lack of them, can be devastating by limiting the ability of young people to freely choose a career and maintain liberal, broad-minded attitudes. Statistics reveal that the profession of librarian leaves boys cold and doesn’t do much more for girls. However, adult women are more favourably disposed. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child stresses the importance of ensuring that children have the opportunity to become what they want to be. In creating paradigms characterised by diversity and calling prevailing values into question, we can maximise their potential.

Is there a difference in genders?

In addition to proactively opposing one-sided stereotypes, organisations, managers and employees must assume the responsibility of welcoming and retaining co-workers who are broadly representative in terms of gender, age, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Attempts to shake up the normative psychosocial culture by means of diversity would prove highly constructive. Qualitative diversity efforts at all levels are also needed in order to reshape the norms that surround the focus of libraries. Swedish law is unambiguous in that regard. Sweden has pursued institutionalised gender equality policies ever since the 1960s. According to the 2009 Discrimination Act, all public workplaces are to strive for a uniform distribution of women and men. In addition to sex, the act demands a determined effort to counteract job discrimination based on transgender identity or expression, ethnicity, religion or other belief, disability, sexual orientation or age. Nevertheless, gender research has pointed out the problematical nature of the rhetoric of equality in Swedish politics on countless occasions over the past 30 years.

Masculine and feminine characteristics are placed at opposite ends of the spectrum – the entry of men in traditional women’s professions is promoted on the basis that they can bring their own particular strengths to bear for the benefit of users. The concept that women and men complement each other is treacherous and deeply entrenched – must each sex necessarily be good only at certain things? Gender differences are regarded as assets. Of course, greater variation emerges in practice and the lives of ordinary men.

However, the rhetoric of gender equality makes the transcendence of stereotypes more difficult insofar as the whole idea is to ensure that workplaces maintain a balance of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ characteristics. As Sundin and Robertsson describe the dynamic, the result may be that male members of the profession find themselves with less room to manoeuvre. Nordberg speaks of a “hostage situation” – should men who practice a traditional female profession affirm ‘women’s values’ or a macho role?

We must prioritise diversity

Everyone is a co-creator of the social context in which they operate, and that holds true of career as well. If changes are to occur that lead to the inclusion of more men, higher salaries, a future in which libraries play an vital role in the community, etc., we must prioritise diversity and do it now. Otherwise the stereotype of the bespectacled librarian with one finger to her lips may not be so far from reality after all.

Ph. D, in Library and Information Science, Head of Library Luleå Technical University