Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Dear Patrick Deane, President, McMaster University

I am writing this letter to you today on International Women's Day. Or, to be more accurate I'm writing you this letter *because* it's International Women's Day.

I am writing to ask you if you think that it's acceptable for a symposium that you will be a speaking at - The Future of Academic Libraries - to have what appears to be only 3 women presenting out of a possible 21 speakers.

The percentage of women in Canadian academic librarianship is 73% [CAUT Almanac, pdf].

Last night I got a call from a student from McMaster as part of the University's current Alumni fund-raising drive. She was kind, clear, engaging and polite. When I told her that I was able to apply my geography and environmental science degree from McMaster in my work as a science librarian, she told me that she really appreciated librarians and just recently a McMaster librarian helped her find the data she needed for her GIS class. 

But as able as she was, she was not ultimately effective in getting closer to her fund-raising goal for reasons that were not her fault. So after I told the student my reasons why I would not donate to McMaster University, I told her that I would write you personally and tell you those reasons myself because... well because it only seemed fair.

I support McMaster librarians and the excellent work that they do. I'm looking forward to working with them at Code4Lib North (that McMaster University is kindly sponsoring) and I hope to run into them again at The Humanities and Technology Camp being held two weeks later at UWO. (As an aside, did you notice that there are no McMaster Librarians speaking at The Future of Academic libraries at the symposium? Others have.)

I will not be attending The Future of Academic Libraries Symposium because 15% doesn't sound fair to me.   I want a future that's more fair than the present, for myself and for the student I spoke to last night.


Rebecca said...

I hear your concerns; and I encourage you to view the symposium from a different perspective. I'm a librarian who has practiced in many sectors, and I'm a female who views everyone as equals. I'm delighted that this symposium is happening here, in Ontario, with these speakers.

The chance to hear this caliber of speakers, for free, in Ontario, is incredible. I have helped organize many events and trying to get the right speakers for the right time on the right topic is daunting. I'm assuming, rightly or wrongly, that other speakers - "female" speakers - weren't available. They are busy too.

And, I'm also not surprised that more McMaster staff, are not speaking because this is an opportunity for them to hear and engage with Mike Ridley, Jim Neal, David Lewis, Arnold Hirshon, Michael Stephens and others from other institutions. Plus - McMaster's President is speaking. It is extremely difficult to arrange a time when a President is able to contribute to this type of forum,and yet, it is the Presidents that we need to hear and that we need to engage in this dialogue.

The quality of speakers at this symposium is outstanding. I applaud McMaster for organizing and hosting this forum for discourse. The gender or race isn't a factor for me; the quality, perspective and experience is. And, believe me, I'm a feminist from way back. I encourage you to look at this symposium and McMaster from a broader perspective - and to engage in the more strategic imperative of academic libraries. Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

Lisa said...

Since when did the strategic imperatives of academic libraries become a "broader perspective" than gender equity and equality? Since when did perspective become divorced from identity?

While I have nothing but admiration for the invited speakers - the fact that the line up could be so systematically skewed towards the views of one gender, especially when engaging in dialogue about 'the future of libraries' - suggests the future belongs to men. Women librarians, I gather, are relics of the past - actual librarians rather than 'information professionals' perhaps?

I also think the implication that in identifying gender inequity in this lineup, the writer (Mita) somehow does not view all humans as equal is egregious, and represents a significant misunderstanding of feminism. And yes, I've been a feminist from pretty far back myself (the cradle I think).

I intend to write President Deane myself, and I hope others who read this blog will do the same. I also will not be attending the symposium. It's not enough to notice that women are excluded from these agenda and culture setting events - we must continually make our voices and objections heard.

Unknown said...

Thank you Mita, for bringing this to our attention, and for your response to President Deane. I also plan to write, as I hope others do.

While I too am disappointed by the line-up speakers, I am equally struck by the first comments about other female speakers simply being unavailable. If anything, this highlights the critical underlying issue for women in this profession, and why the presence of more women at the table in widespread discussions about the "future of academic librarianship" is absolutely essential. If, as Mita reminds us, women comprise 73% of the workforce in Canadian academic librarians, why is it that we should accept a subservient role in the culture-shaping activities and dialogues that govern our profession? The irony here is astounding: the rank and file of academic librarianship is filled with women who, by and large, carry the burden of the pressures of maintaining a work life balance (case in point: I am hoping my toddler doesn't choke on a lego piece as I type this) but we penalize them for it by uncritically accepting (“rightly or wrongly”) that they are too busy to participate as speakers in these important events, thereby excluding them from the broader agenda setting activities. Trying to get the right speakers at the right time on the right topics may indeed be daunting, but that doesn't diminish it's importance.

I also confused as to how one can argue for Mita to take a broader perspective on this symposium but at the same time, suggest that gender (or race for that matter) is not a compelling consideration. Feminism, even “from way back” has never been about arguing that men and women are the same. And that is precisely why the lack of female speakers is so problematic.

Patti Ryan, York University

Mita said...

Rebecca, I’ve made time to reflect on your request to take a different, “broader” perspective to the matter at hand. As a result, I now look at the symposium as failure to meet an important commitment of McMaster University:

At McMaster University, an inclusive community is one in which there is real, visible and meaningful representation of the diversity evident in the wider community at all levels and in all constituencies on campus (faculty, staff, students, administration)

At least, that’s according to the McMaster University Statement on Building an Inclusive Community with a Shared Purpose. But after spending some years being the Chair of The Status of Women Committee at my own place of work, I’ve learned to pay more attention to what people do as opposed to what they say they do.

And what is quite evident from the list of speakers is that the organizers of this symposium did not do nearly enough to address the matter of equity -- and they should have.

It’s equity that is the matter at hand here (“freedom from favouritism” is a nice definition) and not “everyone as equals”. It’s an important distinction and I think it’s worth learning the difference. When you say that gender or race “isn’t a factor for me”, it makes me wonder how familiar you are with the concepts of ‘white privilege’ and ‘male privilege’. As much as we all would like to, we can’t just push unpleasant realities out of mind and then say that we made them go away.

There are many ways librarians can engage in the strategic imperative of academic libraries. During the month of May, I’m hoping to converse with, learn from and work collaboratively with faculty, students and McMaster librarians directly at Code4Lib North and THATCamp.

I would rather create the future of academic libraries rather than wait for someone else to decide include of likes of me.

Pam Ryan said...

I respect and appreciate your post here, Mita. Questioning, speaking up, calling out, and discussing is one of our shared responsibilities in academic librarianship. Thank you for taking the time to do so here.

I hope none of us ever settle for "its free and local" as good enough or acceptable rationale to dismiss the omission of important viewpoints in a dialogue.

DeniseK said...

I was saddened when I heard about this symposium being dominated by male speakers. In this profession that is 73% women, a librarian cannot look at that program line-up without wondering what is going on. While the speakers as individuals may all be great, as a group they are not representative of our profession, or of society in general for that matter. Even the faculty on the panel are all men! Perhaps it needs to be called A Man’s View of the Future of the Academic Library. Due to the pointed exclusion happening here, such a discussion is not meaningful in any way and is disrespectful to all the women doing amazing, innovative things in our profession.
Denise Koufogiannakis
University of Alberta

Mita said...

With my permission, this post was reprinted at John Dupuis' Confessions of a Science Librarian.

Amanda said...

My DH (also a librarian) made mention of this symposium and the gender controversy that surrounds it. Gender differences, in librarianship and in research, are important. We need to pay attention. I'm glad you've pointed this out on your blog.

Unlike Rebecca, I am concerned that a female perspective is so clearly lacking. Maybe that's not just because I work in the female-dominated profession of librarianship, but also because the faculty I serve as nursing librarian are overwhelmingly female. While I obviously can't predict what these gentlemen will speak about, I think the dialogue would be quite different if faculty from nursing were invited to the stage.

I am an embedded librarian - writing this from my office in the School of Nursing. I sit on the undergraduate curriculum committee and academic council for the School. I get co-authorship on many papers written by my faculty. They see me completely as part of the team. This isn't the case for my husband (liaison areas in pure sciences). So while he worries about the future of his role, I have no doubt that librarians have a wonderful future in academia, even if I have managed to unchain myself from the damn reference desk (almost). To not see this difference as, at least in part, one of gender is startling.