women and altruism: preliminary thoughts

I was thinking briefly about submitting a proposal for Five Weeks to a Social Library. I didn’t, primarily because the only social tool my library currently uses is Flickr, and I haven’t done much with it, and because I didn’t feel up to teaching myself screencasting on top of work, school, life, etc.

I just read Meredith’s post about the male/female ratio in the proposals, and the fascinating comments that speculate about why more women may have submitted than men. I don’t know the reason, and I’d be interested to see the survey, if they do one, but I will say this: Five Weeks is the first library conference (or conference type thing) I’ve ever even thought about submitting a proposal to, and I suspect that at least part of the reason I even thought about it was that I knew that the organizers were women.

I went to an all-female camp for about a million years, and I went to a college that, as we liked to say, is a women’s college that lets men in now, and perhaps as a result I’m often inclined toward projects that involve women doing things. But I am also somewhat disturbed by my reaction.

I read all the blog posts and comments and other bits of conversation that delved into the topics women and technology and sexism in librarianship as they were written over the past few months, and I wondered many of the same things. Where were the women on tech panels? Were fewer women being asked, or were fewer volunteering, and if that was the case, was it because of time constraints, or because they didn’t feel “techie enough”? Just who was responsible for representing women? Like many of you, I was pleased by Roy Tennant’s Library Journal column, with the exception of one bit at the end:

We need women in digital library positions. We need their unique perspective and their civilizing influence on the boys’ clubs that many library systems units, professional events, and online forums have become. But more than that, we simply need their talent.

It’s the second sentence in that excerpt that bothers me. I didn’t write about it at the time, but it came back to me now, because it relates to a bit of what bothers me about many of the theories on why more women than men submitted proposals to Five Weeks. It’s what bothers me about my own reasons for almost submitting, in fact.

Do we really believe that women are more civilized than men? As I recall, one of the arguments against women’s suffrage was that women didn’t need to be able to vote; they were already able to affect their husbands’ votes with their civilizing influence. Are women more likely to involve themselves in tech-for-good than in tech-for-tech? That seems more possible to me, but I’m going on hunch combined with Dorothea’s research, which, as she notes, is a bit old.

But regardless of the veracity of either claim, neither one helps the position of women in technology, in librarianship, or in the world. Tenant saves himself, somewhat, by concluding that we need women most of all for their talent. I’d like to live in a professional world in which women were judged first by their talent and only later by the content of their characters. Being a person who is civilized and altruistic is a good thing in the greater scheme of things, but neither one does much for your paycheck, at least if you’re female.

It sounds as though I don’t value good character. That’s not true. But I’d like to live in a world where it wasn’t the thing people thought women brought to the table.