Mentors, gender, reluctance: Notes from Taiga panel on leadership at ER&L

As part of Taiga’s efforts to engage in broader conversations with a wide variety of librarians and library communities, I agreed to be on a panel about Leadership at the recent ER&L conference in Austin TX (YeeHaw!). I had a great time with colleagues Damon Jaggars from Columbia University and Kristin Antelman for North Carolina State University both in planning for the panel and on the day of.

Below are my edited notes from my portion, where I talked about mentors, gender, and reluctance/skepticism about moving into formal library leadership positions.

When the 3 of us first starting planning this panel, part of what I volunteered to do is talk about talking about leadership … which sounds really meta, but is really just about how and when and why and with whom you might want to talk to about your interest in library leadership.

Everyone knows good mentors are important – and I want to put a plug in for informal mentors. Some organizations have formal mentorship programs and that’s great, but many successful leaders talk about the important role of informal mentors on their success.

How do you find an informal mentor or mentors?

My colleagues may suggest different strategies, but I’ve found that being active on social media and reading library blogs makes it easier for you to “meet” people whose work and/or career you want to emulate or at least who you might want to learn from. Interact, comment, RT, ask questions. Talk to speakers after talks, even if you don’t have a question – tell them what you liked about their talk, why it resonated. Then later, ask to have coffee w/ them.

You don’t have to formally ask them to be your mentor, but you can tell them what your career aspirations are and ask for some advice. Honestly, most of us are egotistical enough that we are flattered when someone asks for our advice.

But I’ll let you in on a little secret – it isn’t really any advice you get from formal or informal mentors that will pay off.  It is the connection you have made. The adage about it not being what you know but who you know has an element of truth in it. One of the most influential articles in sociology is all about the strength of weak ties. In that research Mark Granovetter shows how it is our weak ties, our acquaintances, not our closest friends or family members, who are most likely to help us get the best jobs. The connections we make at conferences and on social media are exactly the kinds of weak ties that will pay off in helping us find and get the next job.

(Insert abrupt transition here)

And now I want to talk about gender.

Women are less likely to express career ambitions than men, and whatever you think of the advice in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, the research she cites makes it clear that women are (in general, and mostly white women) less likely to engage in the kinds of behaviors and activities that promote their own career advancement, and no wonder …

There is ample research showing that ambition and/or engaging in a range of leadership behaviors (speaking first, speaking confidently, taking charge in leaderless groups) is more likely to be viewed harshly for women, but positively for men.

Sociologist Joan Williams has distilled a huge amount of the research on women and work into a summary of some basic patterns of biases that women face, along with some suggested strategies:

  • “Prove it again”: This pattern refers to the fact that women encounter harsher standards than men, and that women’s success is more likely to be attributed to luck than to competence. Some suggested strategies are for women (and male allies) to vouch for each other and to publicly praise and celebrate each other’s success. Williams suggests that women “form a posse”. Another recommendation is to engage in “gender judo” – that is to adopt a mixture of feminine and masculine behavioral styles. Gender judo is also the recommended strategy for mitigating the effects of “The Tightrope”.
  • “The Tightrope” refers to the fact that women are rarely seen as both competent and nice, so they are forced to walk a tightrope between the two, trying to hit just the right balance to ensure they succeed at work. An additional strategy suggested for this challenge is that women strategically say “no” to some of the “housework” tasks women are typically and disproportionately asked/expected to do (bring the snacks, remember the birthdays, etc.).
  • Another well-documented pattern of discrimination women face is “The Motherhood penalty” – women who are mothers are judged as less committed AND less competent than childless women & than fathers. Williams suggests that an effective strategy to counteract the assumptions behind The Motherhood Penalty is for individual women to be explicit about their own goals & family decisions – whatever they are — and when people question your commitment to either work or family or both, to respond that the choices you are making are working for you (assuming that they are).

Now, to be honest, – Despite the fact that there is apparently some research showing that these strategies are effective (I’m guessing especially for white, straight, cis-gendered women in professional jobs), I’m not super comfortable with the focus on individual rather than organizational or institutional responses to gender bias and other forms of inequity in our organizations.

But … institutional change is slow and hard. And I suspect some combination of individual, organizational, institutional, and societal level strategies is required. And, one potential strategy for making our organizations more inclusive is for more men of color, more women, more people from underrepresented groups of all kinds, to assume leadership. Especially if those people are committed to a more diverse and equitable profession and organization.

And that brings me to my final point – I want to finish this up by talking to those of you who don’t want to be in library administration – especially those of you from underrepresented groups – and people of color and even white women are underrepresented in leadership in libraries relative to their numbers in the profession.

How many of you want to be a “leader” in the library world but can’t picture yourself as an AUL/AD or other high-level administrative leader in libraries? How many have mixed or negative feelings about being a library administrator, and have no desire to ever be a UL? (Note: LOTS of hands shot up).

Do any of these reasons resonate? (Note: Lots of head nodding during this roll call of reasons librarians are reluctant about moving up into formal administrative leadership positions).

  • I don’t want to deal with all “the politics”
  • I don’t want to be “the man”
  • I don’t want to have to compromise my values
  • I could never handle all the bureaucracy and I don’t want to deal w/ budgets
  • I want to have a balanced life

And what I want to say is that I get that … I really do… and I’m not going to tell anyone to Lean In when they want to Lean Out. I say Lean whatever way you want … AND I want to leave you with this thought:

If all of you who don’t want to play politics, who don’t want power & influence to change your values, and who want to have a healthy work life balance shy away from leadership positions; it might mean that you are leaving the leadership of our profession in the hands of those who aren’t concerned about those things …

 

5 Responses to “Mentors, gender, reluctance: Notes from Taiga panel on leadership at ER&L”


  1. 1 Regina Schmidt March 24, 2014 at 10:57 pm

    Wise words indeed.

  2. 2 Emily March 24, 2014 at 12:29 pm

    I saw Courtney Young at the Columbia University Libraries seminar on leadership last week and she was fantastic. She talked about those who possess institutional/bureaucratic power using it as a lever to get people from underrepresented groups into positions of power within the hierarchy. She was so clear and realistic about the need to acknowledge what power we have (and some of us have more than we think we do) to make things happen for other people. So, not just mentoring in terms of advice, but mentoring in terms of giving access to power, a concept I wish we’d talk more about when we talk about “leadership.”

    • 3 Chris Bourg March 24, 2014 at 12:58 pm

      Sounds like a fantastic talk … which is not surprising, since Courtney ROCKS! And yes, giving access to power, to influence, to networks, to opportunities … all vital.

  3. 4 Eleanor I. Cook March 24, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    Great post Chris! It challenges us to think about leadership seriously …


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