RBMS 2016 Blog


“No, I Don’t Want to Take Notes”

–Image from lenep on flickr.

Sexism in the workplace

Sexism in the workplace can be overt, but more often, it manifests in “soft” forms that undermine women’s leadership ability. Women are unequally asked to perform “office housework,” such as taking notes in meetings and training junior colleagues. These tasks prevent women from spending time on contributions that are perceived and rewarded as impactful. Women are unequally asked to curtail their courage and energy. The same qualities that are described (positively) as leadership abilities in men are described (negatively) as abrasive in women. Women are unequally asked about their family and personal life, while men are given opportunities to talk about their professional accomplishments. Moreover, biased expectations about work-life balance and personality traits often prevent women from taking on increased responsibility and promotion. Women are unequally talked over and silenced in meetings, where their ideas often go ignored, only to be lauded when subsequently pitched by men.

Even in libraries, where women traditionally outnumber men, soft sexism impedes our ability to succeed. Soft sexism creates a hostile work environment for women, and diminishes their contributions to shared goals.

The 2016 RBMS Conference will feature a brown-bag lunch discussion on managing soft sexism in the workplace. We will begin by identifying patterns of soft sexism and ways to address the issues. Then, we will consider real-life case studies from the RBMS community. We will generate ideas to support those facing challenges in their workplace, and to collectively advocate for the end of soft sexism in the RBMS community.

In advance of this discussion, we are (anonymously) collecting stories from the field.  Here’s what we’ve heard so far:

Stories of sexism

35% “Didn’t I just say that?”: when women aren’t a credible source of information/ideas, or, it’s not true until a man says it

“When my male partner reiterated the same thing I said, [the executives] would then answer him. Conversations kept touching on archival issues that I am well-versed in, yet the executives continued to direct the topics towards my fellow consultant instead of acknowledging my existence.”

24% The Scarlet “A”: when confidence and savvy mean women are perceived as “abrasive” or “aggressive”

Male coworker says “that I am aggressive and defensive when it comes to my work. And I cannot respond, because that will continue to make me [appear] aggressive and defensive.”

24% Splaining

“He proceeded to explain to me in a tone that suggested I had never been in a library before how one can search the catalog by typing in the author’s name. He was going about his research in an incredibly roundabout way but cut me off every time I tried to show him better ways to search.”

22% Office housework: unequal assignment of menial administrative tasks

“Our male supervisor went to every woman in the department and volun-told them to organize the department Christmas party. When asked by a co-worker about the expanding party budget, the same supervisor replied, ‘Well you know how females are with money…'”

“Was candidate for a major office in a professional association. … [Competing] male candidate turned to me and said ‘would you carry these (campaign materials for me) – my wife usually does but she’s not going.'”

Boss makes himself a pot of coffee, asks female subordinate to do the dishes: “It seemed intentional on his part – a way to put me in my ‘place’.”

14% Maternal wall: questions about children and family life

“He went on to explain that there was a lot of work over the weekends for this position (I was aware of this as it was listed in the job posting) and that if I had a boyfriend I wouldn’t want/the boyfriend wouldn’t want me to work on weekends.”

“When I’m at a conference … people always ask me ‘who’s watching your children?’ I never hear my male counterparts being asked that question.”

14% Overt sexism and inequity

“The director of every major rare books/special collections library (Houghton, Ransom, Beinecke, Bentley) in the US is a man (except, recently, the Huntington) in a field totally dominated by women!”

5% Generally not being taken seriously

“I get a quick head snap and a shocked look. ‘Oh? Are YOU the librarian? Sorry, you didn’t look like a librarian.'”

“People constantly assume that the two men who work with me are MY supervisors, even though I am more than 10 years older and I supervise them.”

Want to contribute your own story?

The survey is still open, and we will be collecting stories until the RBMS 2016 Conference.

Use the #libsexism hashtag during the conference, and highlight your experiences in 132 characters or less!

Join the Facebook group for sharing and support: https://www.facebook.com/groups/902340889884468/

Want to participate at the Conference?

The participant-driven, brown bag lunch session will be held Wednesday, June 22, 12:30 – 1:45 pm.  Our code of conduct will be as follows:


Our goal in designing this session is to provide a safe space to discuss the impact of sexism in the profession, and to collectively consider strategies for opposing it. We define sexism as the “outward manifestation of an inward system of values deliberately designed to structure privilege by means of an objective, differential, and unequal treatment of women, for the purpose of social advantage over scarce resources” (“Terminologies of Oppression,” The Anti-Oppression Network). We welcome male allies at this session and invite men to participate. We recognize that men are both negatively impacted by sexism and have an equal share in its opposition.

We hope that this session will spark a community that continues to address and challenge sexism in special collections. Because the 2016 RBMS conference does not have an official code of conduct, we ask that all participants in this discussion adhere to the ground rules below. The session moderators will enforce these rules and reserve the right to ask participants to leave if they violate them. If you notice a violation, or have any other concerns, please contact a session moderator immediately.

  • Respect the lived experiences, opinions, and differences of others.
  • Speak for yourself, using “I statements.” Do not assume that your experience or understanding of an issue is universal.
  • Respect the confidentiality of others. Do not share others’ stories without permission. This includes live tweeting and other forms of social media engagement during the session.
  • Do not engage in harassment or ad hominem attacks.
  • Focus conversation on the definition of sexism given above, and avoid discussion of the related issue of “reverse sexism.”

–Allison Jai O’Dell, University of Florida