As a continuing commitment to look at the YALSA Teen Services Competencies for Library Staff through the EDI lens, and my presidential theme of Striving for Equity using the same Competencies, I considered the fourth of these Competencies. I thought about how career preparation is a considerable aspect of Learning Experiences (formal and informal), and realized that a notable, ongoing issue of equity, inequity and inequality revolves around gender issues in the workplace.
Because I feel that our perspective can become myopic if we stay wholly within the library sphere, I chose to interview women in the non-library workforce and I asked them about their experiences around gender inequity and inequality, and how these elements shaped them, both as teens and during their careers. I also asked them about how they feel gender inequity and inequality has affected the teens in their own lives today.
The first interview is with Laura McNeill, who works as a youth mentor in a nature immersion-based camp for kids ages 7-16. She teaches fire by friction, tracking, shelter building, plant identification, foraging, song singing, gratitude and peacemaking. Through these activities and others she strives to strengthen connections to nature, self and others. Her non-paid work includes racial justice organizing and education for Groundwork in Madison, Wisconsin, leading anti-racist workshops for white people, rooted in the resilient leadership of people of color both locally and nationally. She is also a parent to two incredible young people.
If there was one element of gender equity that you would like to see promoted in the workplace, what would it be?
One element would be the racial wage gap. Looking at how race intersects with pay. On average, women of color earn less on the dollar, than white women for the same education background, job experiences and position, with African American women and American Indian women earning the least overall. This gap widens as women advance upwardly into different positions. I’d love to see white women (and white men) address this in the big picture when working towards advancement for equal pay for all genders.
Considering the research that gender stereotypes are set into motion around age 10, how would you say that you worked against these stereotypes for girls, and in what ways did they become a part of your own upbringing and adolescence?
My Dad was working on his college degree when we were in elementary school. He had joined the military right after high school, so worked at nights with the benefit of the GI bill towards his degree. He was often doing homework right beside us at the kitchen table, encouraging us in our studies. I was good at math and was always encouraged to continue to work hard both at school and at home. My parents had three girls right in a row and wanted us to have the same opportunities as anyone else. My mom stayed at home with us, but we often heard stories of her independence, travels and job with IBM. My parents talked about saving money for us to go to college – we always knew that was part of our story.
Raising two white sons, but having close relationships with many young girls through friends and family, this is always on my mind and I am constantly learning. When one of my sons was in 4th grade, the white teacher recommended that he join an advanced math group. Excited to have the teacher recognize that he needed to be more challenged, but also knowing about (sometimes unconscious) early tracking, I asked her if two friends of his, two African American girls, had also been included in this invitation. Having had the privilege of volunteering in the classrooms over several previous years, and having close relationships with these families, I was aware that these girls had always been side by side with my son in learning progress and work efforts. The teacher responded that the girls had not been invited to the higher math group, because their test scores had been low enough not to be in the range required for recommendation. When I asked about the test score difference, it did not seem to warrant not inviting them, based on their history, excitement about math and strong work ethic. I asked my son what he thought about this, and he said that his two friends were just as good as he was in math. I both reached out to the parents with this information and also to the teacher to reconsider, challenging an education system that often leaves kids of color and girls behind when it comes to advanced math. The flip side of this equation is that advanced classes are often pushed by privileged white families, who then keep quiet about this privilege. So speaking up about this ‘silence’ is also important, exposing privilege and making all families aware of what opportunities exist. Reframing and valuing high expectations in education for all of ‘our’ kids, not just our own families. Reminding and encouraging educators to look at a bigger picture than test scores when recommending kids for advanced courses.
Can you discuss any experiences that you have had that made you feel singled out as a woman or as one of the women in your workplace or chosen career? Are there particular instances of gender inequalities that you have had to deal with? How did you handle them?
Unfortunately, the ones that come to mind are the sexual predatory ones. As a college student, working in a restaurant and the male manager grabbing our asses whenever he felt like it. Knowing it wasn’t appropriate, but it was so commonplace with all the other women, it felt that’s just the way things were. We would ‘deal’ by commiserating with one another and avoiding this man as much as possible. I remember there was one woman, who was a cook in the kitchen, who had a strong relationship with this man, and somewhat equal position of power. She would call him on his bullshit, and then he would stop for awhile. I didn’t realize at the time that I could use my own voice to stop it or change it. I feel grateful for the one woman who did and looked out for us on many occasions. She planted a seed through her actions, of what was possible.
My 16 year old recently got his first job in a restaurant and had to read through a ‘code of conduct’, that included general information about inappropriate behavior and/or conversation. He was shocked to learn that such a document had to exist, so it was a perfect opportunity to share some personal history as well as stories of women (and men) taking leadership to make these changes a reality. I also reminded him that this code of conduct helped protect him as well, as it’s purpose was to create an overall positive work environment for everyone.
What guidance, if any, have you received from mentors or coaches about how being a woman in the workplace may affect your career? How do you feel that this advice has helped you? What resources would you recommend to people who work with teens that would help them to better understand the scourge of gender inequity and inequality and impart that information to young people?
After college, I took some time off to live in a ski town in Colorado. I worked odd jobs, got a ski pass and met a lot of really cool people (including my husband). It was a time in my life of feeling really ‘free’ after being in school for many years, and having new experiences in a completely different environment than I had ever lived. Several of my friends and family members questioned what I was doing because it wasn’t on a direct career path – was I ‘using’ my degree for what it was meant to be used for? These people made me question what I was doing. My Dad on the other hand asked me – ‘Are you happy?’. And my answer was a big ‘YES!’ I was working for a family who cared for me and paid me well and taught me things about running a business I might never have learned otherwise. I worked another job that was full of intergenerational engagement, fed me 4x/week and valued my contributions. I paid off much of my student debt. I learned to ski on $10 skis, and skied on average 3-4x a week in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. I was definitely happy. My dad replied ‘That’s what matters…(and… stay out of debt).’ This advice, to do what makes you happy, more than any other, has fueled me on my path through various jobs and experiences. And staying out of debt has allowed me the opportunity and freedom to make many choices. I am forever grateful and it is something we often talk about with our kids, and ask even in the extracurricular activities they choose to be a part of now – ‘Are you happy?’ …hopefully building that foundation for whatever paths they take in life, knowing they can change multiple times.
Famously, Sheryl Sandberg encouraged women in the workplace to “Lean In”. Can you describe suggestions that you’ve read about or learned from others (outside of direct mentorship) that have been helpful? Detrimental? Any you needed to tweak for your particular situation to be successful?
‘Leaning in’ to discomfort is a big part of racial justice work for anyone, but especially white people. Engaging in the complexity of racism/privilege, for those of us who are white, and can’t always see the harm we may be participating in can be frustrating and hard. But from personal experiences, it is the leaning in to that discomfort, being vulnerable, not always having the answer, making mistakes and learning from them that has strengthened my abilities to build relationships across race, class, gender, ability, nationality…etc. These tools have been critical to building strong accountable relationships in the workplace, in the schools and my larger community. My relationships across race, class, gender, ability, nationality have been the backbone to any kind of meaningful work that I have been involved in. It is these relationships that have helped give me a wider and deeper view of the world, have a stronger voice to speak up when I see wrongs being done, or to speak up when I have ideas to share. This is what I hope for my children…that they will be able to build healthy relationships, speak up when they see wrong, be able to accept constructive criticism when they do harm, and the courage to change what they can both within and outside of themselves.
What advice would you have for teens who are entering the workforce when it comes to gender roles and gender inequity?
I think I want to always be open to listening to their experiences, and helping them think through what is happening with a critical lens. I hope to always encourage the teens (kids and adults) in my life to speak up when they feel something is wrong, even when it feels risky, to forgive themselves and others when mistakes are made, and to be open to learning and receiving feedback, so they can continue to grow and strengthen who they are.
Finally, what ideals about gender equity and equality have you worked to instill in your own kids and others around them, and how?
First off, I have taught my kids to see outside of the gender binary, that there are more than two genders. I hope that they love and respect themselves first, and then see and respect people for who they are, no matter their gender or identity. I point out all different kinds of people in leadership and take them to learn from many different people. If they don’t understand something, I encourage them to ask questions and try to learn about it. I encourage them to be open and listen to many different perspectives, as well as share their own. They have also had strong female friendships from a very early age, who speak at their level and call them on their shit. I’m very grateful for this! It takes a village. Teaching kids is every day, in big and small ways; it’s never a one and done conversation, because I am and they are always learning, and the world is always changing.
Thanks for participating, Laura, and thanks to readers for everything you do to counter gender inequity and inequality in and outside of libraries!
Todd Krueger, YALSA President 2019-2020 | Twitter: @toddbcpl