The Pink Collar Library: Technology and the Gender Wage Gap

The Pink Collar Library: Technology and the Gender Wage Gap

When you think of a librarian, what images come to mind? Probably conservative dress, knit cardigan, coke-bottle glasses, severe hairstyle, and a penchant for the word “Shh!” The image that takes shape is also probably undeniably female. The stereotype of the librarian is strongly ingrained in our consciousness, a Rorschach test of gender bias. We almost always associate women with librarianship. Like teaching and nursing, librarianship is considered a “pink collar” profession — dominated by women whose service-oriented labor is considered “women’s work.” This work is often undervalued and underpaid with limited built-in promotion potential.

In recent years, library professionals have observed an increase in the number of men entering woman-dominated librarianship and an expanded role of technology in the library. This has led to a mounting tension surrounding the topic of equal pay. The library profession has generally assumed positions focused on technology to be an invasive force: overtaking “traditional” service-oriented library jobs and highly stratified in favor of men and pay. Survey data collected by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL)* paints a different picture on the current state of technology in the academic library, suggesting the tension between traditional positions and technology is misplaced. Technology does not correlate with pay and power in the library — gender does. Men, at disproportionate rates, take both limited management roles and higher pay in a profession ubiquitously thought to be womanly. It turns out, the pink-collar was only made to be worn by the woman librarian.  

Offensive and outdated stereotypes (“Isn't your job obsolete with the Internet?”) aside, librarians have long been early adopters of digital information systems. For example, when libraries moved from the analog card catalog to the online public access catalog (OPAC), they put the entire collection of a library a computer query away. Librarians are continuing to embrace the digital by fighting for open access to scholarship on digital databases or by creating digital exhibits from their special collections. But as the world turns even more digital, men and women occupying similar roles are seen very differently, and women continue to be regarded as the support structure for men.

A number of articles tracing the history of the librarianship profession provide greater insight into this unease between the sexes in the library. Suzanne Hildenbrand, Professor Emeritus at the University of Buffalo’s School of Library and Information Studies, wrote in the 1997 article “Still not equal: Closing the library gender gap,” that “library labor cost containment is not gender-neutral since library jobs, like jobs in the economy in general, are sex-typed, with technology-oriented jobs identified as male and service-oriented ones as female.” Over 20 years after this article, men continue to compose an inordinate number of library technology positions and draw a higher salary than women in comparative roles.

But according to research conducted by the ARL, traditional and technology roles pay similar salaries in libraries. If technology is not correlated with pay, why do gender pay gaps in a female-dominated profession continue to exist? Why do women continue to be perceived as the handmaidens of librarianship, even when occupying roles similar to men?

2016-2017 average salaries of specialized library positions, by Meredith Broadway

A possible answer dates back to the establishment of librarianship as a “profession” when men reigned over the field. As librarianship has turned into pink-collar work, men have become the minority but still command higher salaries. Women continue to hold service-oriented positions with limited upward mobility, while men, though fewer in number, proceed with jobs in management and administration.

Librarianship was once considered a profession for “middle-class, college-educated white males,” according to Dr. Suzanne Stauffer, associate professor at Louisiana State University's School of Library and Information Science. Women in librarianship were ”the supporting players, providing the foundation upon which the men would build their reputation, their distinction, and their profession.” The shift to the female-dominated field of today occurred during the first World War when able-bodied men were needed in the war effort. “The same authorities who objected to women’s employment in the camp libraries,” Stauffer wrote, “strongly encouraged their use as volunteers, often in the same speech or article, suggesting that the real reason was not to protect women from the arduous labor but to promote librarianship as a masculine profession.” Women as volunteers in the early days of the library supported the notion that men were the main players, and women merely the support structure.

American Library Association volunteers in Paris, 1919. (University of Illinois Archives I Public Domain )

In analyzing trends in LIS graduate programs, authors Roma Harris, Gillian Michell, and Carol Cooley observed a striking trend in “The Gender Gap in Library Education.” They note that it “is the tendency for women to specialize in the teaching of services for children and young adults, cataloging, and classification, whereas men have tended to specialize in information science, research methods, library automation, and the history of books, printing, and libraries.” What’s more, “women tend, in general, to work in a small cluster of occupational categories and find that within these categories they are underpaid, have few opportunities for advancement, and that their jobs have little prestige. Conversely, men tend to work in a wide variety of occupational categories, and relative to women, enjoy greater upward mobility, both with respect to salary and prestige.” The tension between tech and non-tech library jobs begins in the classroom, but is again a direct result of the pervasiveness of misogyny in the library and not the technology itself.

The very staff structure of the library reinforces the same misogyny and exacerbates the gender pay gap. Many academic libraries maintain a “post-hierarchical” organizational structure, where women reach a standstill in their career (and pay) when they cannot reach highly limited management roles. Men, who only make up about 20 percent of the profession, take nearly 40 percent of these sought-after management roles, not just technology or tech-adjacent roles.

In theory, the post-hierarchical library operates on a flat, organizational structure. It reduces clunky top-down management and bureaucratic inefficiency. In reality, the post-hierarchical library removes mid-level management roles that could provide female librarians with job security, the ability to negotiate higher pay, and greater work autonomy. Rethinking library staff structure and improving opportunities for female advancement will do more to diminish the gender pay gap than making technology explanation du jour for the ongoing discrimination against librarians.

It’s time for librarians to reframe the impact of technology on the library. Are libraries and librarians still relevant in an ever-increasing digital world? Of course we are. In fact, librarians can have a significant impact by doing something they have always done: promoting literacy. Literacy in computer programming, that is.  

Programming is a literacy, just like reading. It’s a way to communicate with others and contribute to reasoning; it is becoming increasingly relevant to participation in modern society. Providing resources to ensure patrons are literate is the cornerstone of library science. Literacy, both the traditional and digital kind, shouldn’t be a meritocracy or for those who can afford it. It’s a basic human right.

Academic and public librarians alike can support programs that teach computer programming and treat it as a new form of literacy and an act of social justice. Computer science courses for youth have grown rapidly in the past five years. A 2016 Gallup report found that 40 percent of American schools now offer coding classes. New York has pledged to offer computer science to every student by 2025. Los Angeles will do so by 2020. Chicago made computer science a high school graduation requirement in 2018.

Instead of focusing on the supposed overtaking of the library by technology roles, librarians need to focus their effort on ensuring they are embracing a modern and progressive profession that provides parity for women. Librarians, both women and men, need to ensure the traditional services that make libraries special are viewed with the prestige they deserve, while continuously integrating new technologies and more inclusive approaches into their work. Technology in librarianship has the potential to move the field beyond the dead-end pink-collar, serve library patrons, and ensure libraries remain a refuge in all communities.

*We define service-oriented roles in the ARL data as roles associated with circulation, reference, or document delivery. Service-oriented roles in public libraries, outside of the scope of this work, include reference and circulation, but also involve work with children and teens.

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