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.

6 thoughts on “women and altruism: preliminary thoughts”

  1. Good post!

    Yeah, I remember reading that article and shaking my head at that sentence. And I was surprised that Roy would write something like that, though on the whole, it was a terrific article. He is one of the nicest and most “civilized” people I know in the field, male or female. A lot of the women I know are pushy agitators (like me), so, if anything, we will shake things up and make them better, but we won’t be civilizing influences. The whole “civilize” thing did strike me as a very turn of the century (20th century, not the most recent) sort of argument.

    To me, we need more women in conferences just like we need more people of color, more young people, more old people, more conservatives and liberals, etc. We need diversity — of background, ideas, opinions, talents, etc. It’s what makes life interesting

    It’s interesting to look at our assumptions too — that you were more likely to submit for an all-female conference committee just as some men assumed that an all-female conference committee meant that men weren’t invited. If a man had offered to help me with the course, our committee would have had a guy on it. This is just how it turned out.

  2. Interesting thoughts on this topic. I, myself, am conflicted by the whole topic and am not entirely sure what the right answers are. I didn’t really react the same way that you did to Tenant’s article, but I can certainly understand your point. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be judged solely based upon one’s talent? I would even like to believe that this is possible. However, men and women are different and group dynamics are different depending upon the gender make-up of the group. I myself have to admit to feeling extremely uncomfortable in most groups made up of all males. Is that my issue or is it because of the attitude of the group? I would venture to guess that both can play a role (although I do know that I have issues).
    I find it fascinating that many colleges have found that having women live in dorms with men cuts down on the vandalism rates (I can’t say if this counts as a “civilizing” influence) and reduces the number of reported problems in the dorm. In these cases, the presence of women has a definite impact. What I really wonder is how men see this? Do they actually see the presence of women as a civilizing influence or as something else? As women, we can’t tell men how to feel about the influence of women on conferences, etc. I agree with Meredith that assessing our own assumptions leads to some interesting revelations. Are we as women doing ourselve a disservice if we are more willing to contribute, collaborate or participate in events sponsored by women?

  3. I’ll completely buy into the diversity argument, especially because if I were put into a diverse group of five people (based on several factors), I think I would be considered the least likely to be(come) a librarian at least 80% of the time — especially one who focuses on technology. I still feel like I am required to feel intimidated, though. It’s difficult simultaneously representing both the problem and the solution.

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful and interesting response to my column (among other things). I hope you won’t mind if I try to defend that sentence. One of my recent experiences that led me to write that column was participating in a heavily male-dominated chat room. You may or may not know that when groups of guys get together they can slide into a style of discourse that can be decidedly unwelcoming to women. If, however, those same individuals find themselves in mixed company they are less likely to converse in potentially offensive ways. So my remark regarding the need for the “civilizing influence” of women joining technical conversations and interactions was based in my experience that like it or not, guys will be guys among guys, but they are much more likely to be gentleman when women are around. I view that as a good — and ‘civilizing’ — influence.

  5. Tennant is right. Woman have a civilizing effect on men. This doesn’t in the least diminish a woman’s right to have the same salary as a man, nor does it diminish claims for the right to greater opportunity for women in all walks of life. It’s hard to imagine anybody not wanting to see that everyone has equal opportunity to succeed in whatever job or role in life they choose and are qualified to do. I suppose those that stand in the way of equality so far as pay and opportunity are concerned have not been civilized enough. Perhaps you women folk are not doing your jobs. 🙂

    By the way, young Ms. Crossett, you are on two blog rolls of mine so continue to write well. I am a former student of one of your father’s students. And, speaking of your dad–who, by the way, was always spoken of with great respect when mentioned by my teacher (James S. Cutsinger)–when are you going to scan all of your dad’s papers and put the one’s you think useful (from a pedagogical point of view) online? You are in the business of info tech are you not? 🙂

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