March 23, 2018

Digital Libraries: The Gender Gap

By Roy Tennant

Recently, I’ve had reason to reflect on a disturbing situation in digital library development. Looking around, I see mostly men. Sure, we can all name women who have made substantial contributions to digital librarianship. There are too few of them compared to their male counterparts. In a profession dominated by women, this disparity is even more striking.

Men are outnumbered by women in both management and technical positions where I work at the California Digital Library, but this is not the norm. Most technical library organizations, or the technical parts of libraries (like systems departments), tend heavily toward men (see “Technology, Gender, and the Academic Library”).

We see this reflected in conference speakers, the authors of technical papers, and attendees at most technical conferences in our profession. We have a serious gender gap in technical librarianship, and it’s time to acknowledge and work to change it.

Examining preconceptions

We can start by inspecting our biases. I had cause to do this myself when questions arose regarding a gender imbalance on a few American Library Association LITA programs (see “2.0: Where Are the Women?”) and in the planning of an upcoming technical conference of which I am a part. Although I felt impartial and willing to accept and acknowledge technically talented women, I dug a little deeper and realized that it wasn’t quite so simple.

By waiting for talented women to come forward, I had jumped from our current problems to the rosy future I hope we all seek. In this future, people are encouraged to enter any field in which they are interested and are supported, acknowledged, and justly compensated for their contributions regardless of gender. I was, in other words, being extremely naïve. The world simply doesn’t work that way—yet.

Gaming the job

Women continue to face serious barriers to achieving technical positions and advancing in them. Technology is still very much a man’s game—or, more accurately, a boy’s game. Boys’ fascination with often violent video games easily translates into being fascinated with all things electronic, whereas girls who value other types of entertainment and interaction with their world may find working all day with computers a harder sell.

While games aren’t the only path to technical positions, they must be acknowledged as a “gateway drug” and largely the purview of boys. Male-do minated gaming culture has the additional impact of repelling the entry of women. Groups of men interacting in the absence of women can be rude and even misogynistic. Add one woman to the mix and, often, little will change. It’s only when the balance shifts more substantially that behaviors are likely to change significantly. Old habits are hard to break.

Being feminist

I’m not trying to label all men working in technical positions as misogynistic. Instead, the label I’m trying to pin is feminist. I want to believe in the equality of women enough to do something to change society to treat them that way. We need to create welcoming, fostering, and supportive environments for our female colleagues.

An interesting paper on gender differences in online communication styles (see “Gender Differences in Computer-Mediated Communication: Bringing Familiar Baggage to the New Frontier”) suggests that rules for electronic discussions and chat rooms may need to be established and enforced in order to create such environments.

We won’t be changing to help women. We will be doing it for our libraries, for our profession, and for ourselves. 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.

For more on the wired library, see the netConnect supplement mailed with the January, April 15, July, and October 15 issues of LJ

Link List
Gender Differences in
Communication: Bringing
Familiar Baggage to the New Frontier
Technology, Gender, and
the Academic Library
2.0: Where Are
the Women?

Author Information
Roy Tennant ( is User Services Architect, California Digital Library. He is author of Managing the Digital Library (Reed Business Pr., dist. by Neal-Schuman)