Thursday, April 18, 2013

No Room in the C-Suite for Strategic Information Leaders (a/k/a librarians): The Long Shadow of "Help Wanted Female?"

NY Times Mar. 20, 1969

Several weeks ago I wrote a post about the lawsuit brought by the researchers at Newsweek who in 1970 figured out that they had been hired into a "female ghetto" of research, which was valued less than the "male" role of reporting . It was also a position from which they could not be promoted. When I read "Good Girls Revolt" by Lynn Povich I was not thinking... "this is ancient history." I was thinking that there is an echo of this story in the "glass ceiling" facing of law librarians in 21st century law firms.We have not revolted, but we live with earnest and unrequited hope that our invitation to the C-suite must be in the mail. We keep thinking that we have to change our titles, our brand, our message, ( and this all may be true ) but I now suspect the problem runs much deeper and is almost impossible to document except by considering  the history of the profession, the statistics and observing the outcome. So let's look at the evidence.

Help Wanted-Female. When I was in college, jobs in the New York Times classified section, were divided into male and female. No surprise --the job of "librarian" was listed in the Times under "help wanted female." I have often told young colleagues about this, and they have reacted with head-shaking disbelief. The segregated ads are gone but I suspect that to this day, that our profession suffers the consequences of unconscious bias. Yes, yes, I know we have male colleagues, but overall they are a minority in the profession, and they also suffer the consequences of the gender baggage our profession still carries, so let's call the problem by its right name and start dealing with it.

Bring on the Cartoons. As if gender were not enough of a problem, there is the relentless stereotyping of librarians. Name one other profession for which there is such a universally accepted and cartoonish image. We can all recite it: hair in a bun, sensible shoes, glasses, drab clothing, humorless, prudish, and forever "shushing." Who would invite this character into the C-Suite! Earlier this year Lego released a "librarian" Lego that is remarkably similar to the 19th century stereotype.But "updated" with the word "shush" printed on her coffee cup. These are not empowering images and yet they are a cultural fixture. I don't think a month passes in which  I don't encounter the  "bunhead librarian" in an advertisement, in a movie or  in an news story. This is the professional equivalent of a minstrel show character, that persists when all ethnic and racial stereotypes have been banished. Maybe you are thinking I should just "lighten up." but consider the possibility that stereotypes create real professional consequences.

The Music Doesn't Sound Good if You are Wearing Lipstick.  If you think I am over-reacting, just consider the impact of stereotypes on female classical musicians. Several months ago, I came across this in a
book by Malcolm Gladwell." Blink, the Power of Thinking Without Thinking", which concludes with a chapter "Listening with Your Eyes." It describes the difficulty which classically trained female musicians faced getting hired by orchestras. Conductors almost universally thought women were unsuitable for orchestras because their hands were too small, their lips were the wrong shape, their lungs couldn't hold enough air… get the picture. No one thought they were being unfair to women. When women showed up for auditions, they just didn’t sound as good as the men. Then something happened. The mostly male musicians began to unionize in an effort to counteract favoritism and unfairness of conductors who sometimes  only hired candidates who they knew or favored graduates from certain schools. One of the reforms that was instituted was called the "blind audition," in which the musicians audition behind a screen. The conductor can only hear the music and makes judgments based on the quality of the music alone. Guess what, following the introduction of "blind" auditions, the number of women in symphony orchestras began to increase. In 1970 only 5% of the musicians were women. The number had increased to 25% in 1997 when a study was conducted by Claudia Goldin of Harvard and Cecelia Rouse of Princeton. ( Orchestrating impartiality: the impact of blind audition of female musicians.)"

What Else Could Explain the Low Numbers of Librarians in the C-Suite? Law librarians are among the most highly credentialed administrative staff in law firms. Most have at least one Masters Degree. They often have  2 advanced degrees,  a Master's Degree plus a JD, MBA or PhD. Law librarians have been in law firms longer than any other "non-lawyer" professional. Their positions date back to at least 1930. Information Technology folks arrived in the 1970's and Marketing folks in the 1980's and Professional Development folks in the 1990s. We had a 40 year lead and yet we have fallen behind in opportunities for professional advancement. The numbers of  Finance, IT, Marketing and Professional Development Human Resources professionals in the "C Suite" far exceeds the number of librarians. No one can convince me that implementing the right information strategy is less critical than having the right technology, marketing, recruiting or lawyer training strategy.

 At the first PLL Summit in 2010, 3 Geeks and a Law blogger, Greg Lambert raised some uncomfortable issues.. He pointed out that in the past 20 years librarians were continually at the forefront of introducing new initiatives and technologies. These innovations include providing firms with the first link to the Internet and introducing  knowledge management (which by the way librarians invented in about 2000 BC), competitive intelligence and formal professional development programming. But instead of having their roles elevated, a strange thing happened… someone else was hired to lead each new initiative. Worst of all  the people hired into these new roles were then elevated to the C-Level. The persistence of the pattern is too dramatic to be ignored. I am open to other explanations, but right now unconscious stereotyping and gender bias get my vote.

And now... I can't help but wonder if during all these years when I was talking strategy and risk anyslyis, my words were drowned out by sound of a cartoon "shushing" in the Executive Director's and Partner's heads.

Leaning Up for the Next Generation. This is a subject no one wants to discuss. I can't  recall ever seeing an AALL program that addressed the issue of gender bias faced by our profession. The ABA and every law firm is trying to increase advancement opportunities for women  lawyers to reach partnership. So why, as a profession that is about 80% female are we afraid to name the problem and begin to look for a solution. I want the next generation of  information professionals to have a a shot at a seat in the C-Suite, but the first step toward recovery is admitting you even have a problem... and then call the problem by it's right name.


Special thanks to Jamie Furillo for assistance with archival research.


  1. Great post Jean. The only question in my mind after reading this is why did the female dominated profession of Marketing get to the C-Level when the (usually as educated, or more educated) profession of librarian didn't? Is that a sub-stereotype of Librarians are submissive while Marketers are aggressive?

    1. Thanks, Greg. I am actually working on a gender analysis of C level positions in law firms which I will be posting soon. Right now the data looks like Marketing is closer to a 50/50 gender split. But you have raised a valid point. As for marketers - right off the bat - they are probably better at Marketing themselves and they certainly don't have overcome the disempowered cartoon stereotype. Is it a failure of the graduate programs for defining the profession too narrowly and failing to teach strategic leadership? Is it the failure of my Baby Boomer generation who didn't push hard enough for promotions and recognition at the dawn of the information revolution? Was it the death of the "library committe" and rise of non-lawyer Executive Directors who saw us as managing a shrinking space called a library and not developing strategies for critical information flows which feed the practice and business of law. I have more questions than answers. Maybe I am at a point in my career where I want to open up a discussion which may lead to both a higher trajectory for the next generation of information professionals and better outcomes and efficiencies for law firms.

    2. I think you are right that marketers are probably better at "marketing" themselves. However I think it also goes back to what you say above in your post about the stereotyped view of the librarian, and I would be curious to see how that differs from the stereotyped view of the marketer.
      It also reminds me of something Sarah Mauldin once said to me: "why are librarians still defined by the building in which they work". As the concept of the library's physical space is changing, is that leaving behind the people defined by this space?

  2. I remember an AALL luncheon where key-note speaker Marianna S. Smith, of the Manville Trust, had asked her staff to find a CEO of a Fortune 500 company who had been a librarian. There wasn't one.

  3. Perception truly is the reality. Marketing is perceived as "making money," i.e., business development and generation. The library is perceived as "costing money" i.e., overhead. While this is obviously false, I know at least of one firm were the bulk of business development searches from attorneys are forwarded to the library from the marketing folks, who don't have the skills to do the actual searches.

  4. I also noticed when working for a while in a public library system in a high income high education country, that when the annual meeting of the library system staff was held, every top position of the county library system was held by a man, despite the fact that most regional library branch directors were women, and the vast majority of professional librarians were women. In my law firm, it is a constant struggle to be heard by the C-suite, despite heavy use of the library's research skills and resources by the attorneys. I have to go through a COO who has to be currently reminded about the broad nature of the services and skills provided by the library and information center. I think it is partially gender bias and, despite many efforts and education, a continuing narrow view of just what "the library" is in a law firm and in the digital age.

  5. The problem is compounded by the fact that every non-legal employee is part of "non-legal staff," in itself a heavily female component of the firm (at least historically)and either tolerated or invisible in the legal management world. It always amazes me that the "Top Family Firm" studies of law firms (such as the one that just came out from Yale - only mention lawyers. We are already invisible as part of legal staff and even more so as women or as part of a traditionally woman-dominated profession. It's hard for any non-lawyer to achieve power in a professional service firm because of the two-tier system: legal and non-legal, served by separate HR depts. Even if librarians could enter into the C level, their staffs would still be thrown to the wolves, so to speak, due to the lack of attention often paid to non-legal work policies and career paths, not to mention pay equity among male and female non-legal staffers. Let's face it--there could be a fear that more women professionals at C level might end up costing law firms more for policies that benefit staffers.

  6. Thank you for the excellent post Jean. This is a topic that is too important to ignore. I did want to say that I was at that PLL Summit where Greg made those observations, and I can tell you the reception he got was extremely negative. I think we do ourselves a further disservice when we don't think critically about our own profession and how we got where we are today. Thus, the importance of your post and bringing all of this out into the open. Thank you again.

  7. Join us at AALL for a coffee talk discussion of Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In. The lack of women in leadership roles is a world wide crisis and not just limited to libraries!

  8. Great post Jean -
    Such an important topic. Just like lawyers who want to lawyer and not network or build business, there are librarians who want to find the data, manage the collection and not be involved in strategy/management, C level issues. However, for those who do have the desire to be at the C level, those who have put themselves out there, proved themselves over and over, who are very well thought of and capable, a great and creative leader, a managing partner, a COO should be paving the way for them ....................this is one piece of the puzzle that is very much needed before anything will change.