Career Direction, Women’s Work, and Other Musings

girls-computerAnyone I talked to at ALA Midwinter (and probably anyone who reads my social media accounts closely—which I suspect is no one :)) has caught on that I’m thinking about next steps in my career. I’ve passed the magical “three years of experience,” after which many more jobs seem to open up and become possibilities. More importantly, I’ve laid some really good groundwork at my current job, which I can use over the next two years to improve not only my organization’s web presence but how the organization makes decisions about our web presence. That is real, lasting change. Coincidentally, I’m about two years out from tenure. So, in two years, I could leave, without guilt and with sufficient experience to get another cool job.

I should say this part now: I have no concrete plans to leave. Even if I did, we’re talking two years, and a lot can change in that time. I like my job.

But I like to plan ahead. I’m ambitious. I want to move up, but there isn’t a lot of “up” to move in my organization. I don’t have supervisory experience (leadership, project management, and hiring experience, yes, but not day-to-day supervision of staff), and more importantly, there’s no clear way for me to get it within my current organization. I fear that they won’t let me move up without that experience, either.

So I’m thinking about options. I’m thinking about where I want my career to go, long-term. I’ve always claimed my goal was to be the director/manager of a small public library. I think I would be happy and effective in that capacity. But I don’t want to go straight there (unless a small, well-funded public library, in an oceanside community, with a fairly agreeable staff happens to drop in my lap, in which case, clearly, I’d reconsider). For now, I want to stay in technology, because I can make a bigger difference there.

Different Routes Within Library Technology

Within library technology, I still have options and decisions to make. I could become a really awesome coder and build cool things. That really appeals to me. I’ve talked before about how I am not confident in my coding skills, yet, but I’ve got the background and the aptitude; all I lack is practice. While I don’t think I’m any good right now, I know I could be awesome, and I could definitely build things that would make libraries better.

But there’s another way I could go, which is still “technical” and is deeply necessary for libraries—and it wouldn’t require the coding skill, as much. I have been thinking I might like to get really knowledgeable about user experience (UX) and data-driven decision making for websites, so that I can become an evangelist for user-centered thinking and usability testing and, more broadly, for actively cultivating empathy for our customers/patrons. If I could get a few Emerging Technology Librarian responsibilities, all the better, because that’s fun. But I could really focus on getting the library community to stop thinking like librarians and instead think like patrons, at least while designing things (websites, mainly, but also spaces and services). And I could make a big difference, that way. We desperately need that.

As a bonus to the UX path, while I see a distinct trend toward hiring computer scientists to do a library’s coding (and I don’t necessarily disagree, given that someone who understands UX is hired along with them), I think, at least for the time being, that librarians aren’t going to listen to anyone besides another librarian about this whole empathy-for-users thing. (I can already hear people thinking “We ARE empathetic toward our users! Who is this jerk to imply we aren’t?” And as long as you’ve never lobbied to keep a link somewhere on the library’s website because it’s your pet project or convenient for you, or tried to get a rule put in place that helps librarians and annoys patrons, or put too much stuff on a subject guide, or added to the flood of paper around a service desk, or argued with the results of a usability test or user survey, then you just keep rocking on—you are not part of the problem. ) Aside from the potential to help libraries be better, it’s probably a stronger choice, in terms of maintaining a stable career path inside of libraries and being able to show leadership and all of those things my ambitious side wants me to be doing.

“Women’s Work”

Then I read these two articles by Lauren Bacon and Whitney Hess. (I used the word “empathy.” You knew my Whitney Hess fangirlism was going to show.) TLDR: Men generally get the techy jobs, heavy on coding, and we allow—nay, expect—tech folks to have poor communication skills. Women usually get the fluffy jobs, heavy on empathy and communication. And we respect (and pay) people with the technical skillset far more than we do the empathy and strong communication.

User experience is on the fluffy side.

This resonates for me. I feel bad and like I am somehow lesser for not having the coding skills that my predecessor had, even though I’m stronger at planning and building consensus and other “fluffy” things that have moved my organization forward tremendously. (In case anyone familiar with the players is reading this, I’m talking about the person who left—that’s who people compared me to, when I started—not about my department head, who is still there, and whom people weren’t cruel enough to compare me to, to my face. My department head is probably better at both skillsets, frustratingly enough. I blame it on more years of experience.) It’s extra galling to me, because I am a competent tech geek; I just spent a few years doing 3D calculus, performing complex calculations with giant data sets, and generally specializing in stuff librarians don’t have to know anything about, so I don’t get credit for any of it. I want to yell, “I’m not dumber; I’ve spent less time in this domain!” (And the time I spent in that other domain? I was proving a point about gender, even then. It was with great guilt that I left and went to a female-dominated profession. But then I ended up on the tech side, which is male-dominated, anyway. The word “microcosm” comes to mind. And “deja vu.”)

So I read these articles, and I thought “Am I falling into a trap?” I wonder, should I go back to that awesome-coder plan? Just as I could very easily become a UX expert (and mediocre-at-best coder) within my current position, I could also pretty easily become a top-notch coder (with mediocre UX chops). (Frankly, programming and UX are both fully-fledged fields, despite the number of librarians expected to cover both. I can cover both, at least for a while, but I can’t master both. And I don’t want to be good for a librarian at either field; I want to be good at one of them. Which takes time and dedication and work outside of the 9-5. Which means prioritizing one over the other.) Instead of evangelizing user-centricity, my evangelism would take the form of teaching other women and librarians to program. I have a coding support group, here in Anchorage, and I think I can dig more female coders out of the woodwork to help, locally. I’d be joining an existing movement, in libraryland; it would be very doable.

Because, here’s the thing: going the coding route would help me feel like I was doing my part to show that women are just as analytical and just as good at hardcore tech stuff as men. Despite the bad journalism discussing the correlation of various attributes to gender in the aggregate, we all need to remember that the variation between individual humans is too high for these kinds of averages to have any predictive value when you’re looking at one person. True fact. So, sure, I’m empathetic, when I want to be, but I’m really analytical at heart. And more examples of accomplished female programmers, both for women thinking of going into tech AND for men who need to remember to treat us as equals … that’s a good, good thing. I feel like, if I have the aptitude, maybe I also have the duty. (And, again, we’re talking about one of two very attractive routes, here. It’s not like I’d be unhappy.)

This isn’t just about proving that women are equal to the task, though; it’s also about proving that librarians are equal to the task. Ours is a fairly technical profession—and I think it needs to be seen that way. More librarians who can code up cool stuff would be also be good examples to people outside of the profession—and people thinking of joining it.

You could argue that I should go the UX route and fight for “fluffy” work to be equally valued, both within and outside of librarianship. I’m uncomfortable with that on several levels, honestly, which I’m unwilling to unpack here. We’ll summarize with “that’s not my style.” If I went the UX route, I’d be far more likely to argue that it is technical and, simultaneously, that the tech-heads need to listen to users.

And I’d still work on my coding, some, to help bolster my self-respect. :/

Any thoughts? Did you agree with either of the posts I linked? Do you have similar arguments with yourself?

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About Coral Sheldon-Hess

Python dev, librarian, engineer, feminist, maker, bird nerd
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One Response to Career Direction, Women’s Work, and Other Musings

  1. Carol says:

    I think you’ve got to be honest with yourself about which path you’d actually enjoy more, because that’s the one you’re more likely to excel at and stick with for the long run. If the main reason you seem to be leaning towards the coding side here is to prove a point about what individual women can or cannot do, then be wary of repeating your disappointment and frustration with your engineering career path, being similarly motivated motivation. I’m not saying to rule out the coding path. I’m just saying to pick the one that you feel you can excel at the most and will enjoy the most over time, and don’t worry about any perceived “duty” to the women of the world. Besides, I think that the *shame* felt by so many professional women who happen to be good at the “fluffy” stuff is just as big of a problem as the other. You can be a good example either way — as a woman who codes, or as an unashamed, empathetic techie.

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