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63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

Gender and Equity in the Library and Information Studies Curriculum: building confidence for the future.

Dr Anne Goulding (Lecturer)


Marigold Cleeve (Research Assistant)
Department of Information and Library Studies,
Loughborough University


Women may numerically dominate the information professional, but powerful positions in administration and management are dominated by men. Various explanations and solutions have been proffered for this state of affairs but the issue of how the information and library studies (ILS) curriculum contributes to, or could help remedy matters has not been investigated. Drawing on a national survey of lecturers and students in UK departments of ILS, this paper explores the extent to which ILS curricula include consideration of gender issues and equity. Starting from the premise that lecturers in higher education have a vital role to play in transforming the beliefs and values of those they teach, this paper examines how the curriculum can be developed to raise students' awareness of equity issues. It is argued that women's attitudes towards their careers can be positively influenced by their formative experiences at departments of ILS which have a responsibility to encourage students to critically analyze their personal and especially their professional experiences.


1. Introduction

The position of women in the library profession has long been a “sex oddity” (Ritchie, 1979). Despite the numerical domination of the library and information workforce by women, their advancement into positions of senior management has been notoriously slow. According to the British Library Association (LA), in 1991 75 per cent of its members were women and yet only 4.5 per cent earned over £20,000, compared with 19 per cent of male LA members (Library Association, 1991). Explanations offered for the lack of female senior managers in libraries, and in the wider workforce, are many. They include:

Strategies aimed at overcoming barriers to women’s advancement have also been various. Part-time working and job sharing, for example, have been advocated as the means of tackling the problems of inflexible working arrangements. Better childcare support from either the Government or employers would, it is argued, help those trying to balance work and family roles. The increasing number of organisational equal opportunities policies have, hopefully, addressed inequities in recruitment policies and raised awareness amongst male managers of the barriers women face and the benefits of a more equitable workforce. Mentoring programmes and networking can promote female role models and, together with female-only training and better career counselling, address the issues of women’s own aspirations and confidence in their ability.

Many of the solutions advocated to combat inequality in the workforce focus on organisational barriers (structures and practices), and/or barriers deriving from women’s ‘traditional’ familial roles. Although overcoming these is essential to ensure the higher reaches of work are accessible for women, as Sarah Pritchard (1989) comments, true transformation of the workplace will not come from merely adding more women, the underlying nature of that workplace also needs to be transformed. Women cannot challenge the status quo, however, unless they know what they are confronting and are given the intellectual means to do so. This entails empowering women by helping them towards a critical understanding of the structures of domination affecting their lives in order that they might be challenged (Taylor, 1989). The empowerment of women thus depends on information and education.

This paper will argue that the education system has the opportunity and the responsibility to promote change and that departments of information and library studies (ILS) can, and should, play a major role in equipping their female students with the necessary awareness and skills to analyse and challenge their own experiences at home, in society, in education and, critically, in the library and information workplace. The paper will discuss the potential of this approach, and will assess how viable it is in the UK by drawing on the results of a national survey of ILS lecturers and students.

2. Challenging Gender Inequality

Gender equity is concerned with the promotion of personal, social, cultural, political and economic equality for all, regardless of sex. The term ‘gender equity’ emerged from a growing recognition of pervasive gender inequities in society which have resulted in the systematic devaluation of attitudes, activities, and abilities associated with women (Gender Equity, 1997). Achieving gender equity requires challenging the underlying assumptions about gender within society, and one focus for change has been the traditional school and university curriculum which, it is argued, “fails to reflect the experiences and contribution of women in history and in contemporary society” (Taylor, 1989). It has been suggested that there is a relationship between the social construction of knowledge in the curriculum, and the social reproduction of gender relations in society (Dewar, 1987). Within the ILS sector, Hannigan (1994, p. 297) asserts that:

A gender inclusive curriculum, therefore, would not only promote an awareness of the position of women in libraries but should also,

The content of the curriculum is not the only concern when attempting to promote gender equity, the learning environment is also important. Poole and Isaacs (1993) suggest that class-room dynamics can reinforce stereotypical roles and attitudes, as can out-of-class communications and relations. Individual teacher’s own attitudes and beliefs can also have a considerable impact on how, or if, gender issues are presented. Lecturers in higher education thus have a vital role to play in transforming the beliefs and values of those they teach. The remainder of this paper will investigate these issues in relation to the ILS curriculum and how it is taught in the UK based on data gathered in a national survey of lecturers and students in departments of information and library studies.

3. Gender Equity in Departments of Information and Library Studies in the United Kingdom

In 1996-7 a study based at Loughborough University investigated the extent to which ILS curricula in UK departments of Information and Library Studies include consideration of gender issues and equity. There were three main foci to the study:

  1. The overt curriculum: to what extent issues of gender and equity are included in the ILS teaching agenda.

  2. The hidden curriculum: how lecturers view the inclusion of issues of gender and equity into their curriculum; to what extent gender is a consideration in lecturers’ formal and informal relationships with students.

  3. Student attitudes: how interested ILS students are in gender issues; how relevant they consider these issues; if interest varies according to age, sex, programme of study.

3.1 Methodology

3.1.1 Literature search
Literature from the fields of library and information science, the sociology of education, women’s studies, psychology and management was reviewed to identify the main issues surrounding the incorporation of gender issues in the higher education curriculum and its effect on students’ awareness of how gender impacts on their personal and professional lives.
3.1.2 Mail questionnaire
A mail questionnaire (appendix A) was sent to academic staff at 18 UK library schools. The sampling frame used was the BAILER directory. Questionnaires were sent to all staff on the BAILER lists unless it was known that they were no longer actively teaching. 252 questionnaires were distributed. There was a 42 per cent response rate (49 per cent female, 46 per cent male, 5 per cent did not declare their sex). Although this appears low, questionnaires were erroneously sent to staff who had either retired or left after compilation of the BAILER directory, or who had no teaching responsibilities but were included in the list of academic staff.

The questionnaire was designed to investigate how lecturers regarded gender issues, their importance to them personally, and how they dealt with them in their teaching. Specifically, the questionnaire covered:

3.1.3 Case studies
Case studies were carried out in two departments from which the questionnaire return rate had been high. At both departments, six academic staff were interviewed on a one-to-one basis. At department A a focus group was held with seven postgraduate students (all female), at department B a focus group was held with seven undergraduates (six female, one male). The interviews and focus groups pursued topics of interest that had arisen from the questionnaire and from the literature review.

3.2 Results

3.2.1 The overt and hidden curriculum Coverage of gender and equity in the ILS curriculum

The issues of gender and gender equity featured in many different areas of the ILS curriculum including:

Human resource management was the area most likely to incorporate awareness of gender issues with an emphasis on employment law, but also included in consideration of topics such as training and development, communications and people skills. The comments of one of the student focus groups, however, raises a question about how effective some of the teaching is:

If coverage of gender issues is felt to be tokenistic or simplistic it is unlikely that it will have the desired effect of raising questions in students’ minds about gender relations in society and at work, and their attitudes towards them. In some departments, issues of gender and equity did not feature in some areas of the curriculum where it might be expected, including:

All of these could incorporate gender issues as a relevant and interesting aspect of the module.

54 per cent of respondents reported that they did consider aspects of gender and equity in their teaching, although the amount of time devoted to gender issues varied (table 1).

    Table 1:  Time devoted to gender issues per academic year by respondents who
    included consideration of gender issues in their teaching (%).

    More than 2 hours	    33
    1 - 2 hours	            21
    Less than 1 hour	    46

Respondents were asked if they were satisfied with this amount of time and if they intended to increase coverage. In response, the time-pressured nature of the curriculum was often commented upon, e.g.:

Others were dissatisfied for other reasons:

Extended coverage was being considered in a number of areas including:

There does appear to be, therefore, scope for increasing the gender-related content in many modules taught in ILS departments.

More interesting, perhaps, are the comments of those who either did not plan to extend coverage of gender issues, spent less than one hour per academic year teaching them, or who did not feature gender and equity at all:

These comments speak for themselves, but the notion that gender has no relevance to a module examining the development of library and information work is quite astonishing. More worrying is the idea that a lecturer can choose to ignore the gender implications of management issues and that “a couple of videos” are enough to sensitise students to gender relations in the workplace.

The individual topics taught within modules that did include consideration of gender issues varied enormously. The questionnaire listed topics that might be considered gender related, and also asked respondents to note any other relevant topics that they taught (table 2).

    Table 2:  Number of respondents teaching specified gender-related topics

    Presentation skills					41
    Equal opportunities and employment law		20
    Assertiveness/confidence building			19
    Women and IT					17
    Stereotyping in literature				16
    Contribution of women librarians			12
    Women’s publishing houses				11
    Women writers					10
    Sexual harassment					10

21 respondents noted that they taught other topics which they regarded as being gender related, including:

Those academics who think gender issues are irrelevant to their subject area may learn from the efforts of others who manage to address gender in a wide range of modules.

One student focus group felt that gender issues were often introduced with little thought given to how they related to the rest of the module:

This comment reinforces the point that the introduction of gender issues needs to be planned so that they are properly integrated rather than being merely ‘bolted on’. Support for, and awareness of, coverage of gender and equity in the ILS curriculum

Lecturers own attitudes may well have an effect on how, or if, gender issues are considered in the curriculum. Generally, respondents were supportive of the inclusion of gender issues in the ILS curriculum (table 3).

    Table 3:  Support for inclusion of gender issues in the ILS curriculum 
    (% of respondents).

    Very supportive		30
    Generally supportive	63
    Not supportive		 7

Female academics tended to be very supportive while male academics tended to be supportive in general. These figures would appear to be in conflict with those above. Although an overwhelming 93 per cent of respondents declared themselves supportive of gender issues in the curriculum, only 54 per cent reported including consideration of the issues in their teaching. It would appear that staff often supported the inclusion of gender and equity in the curriculum as long as they did not have to teach it. It is also possible that staff believed these issues are being covered when in fact they were not.

This assertion is supported by the fact that 54 per cent of respondents were not aware whether gender and equity issues were presented in the curriculum of their department. One respondent noted that she was “weakly aware of others outside my own orbit”. This sentiment was echoed by lecturers interviewed as part of the case studies. Although programme co-ordinators were generally aware of what their colleagues taught, individual academics without programme-wide responsibilities often had little idea of the content of their colleagues’ lecture courses. Presentation of gender and equity issues in the ILS curriculum

Respondents who were aware of the inclusion of gender and equity issues were asked how these topics were presented in the curriculum. The majority said that discussion of these issues were included throughout the programme where appropriate (table 4). 18 per cent noted that their department invited a special guest lecturer, while 22 per cent said that a one-off lecture (on, for example, equal opportunities in the library profession) was given.

    Table 4:  Presentation of gender and equity issues in the ILS curriculum 
    (% of respondents)

    Special (guest) lecturer						18
    One-off gender/equity lecture					22
    Discussion of facets of gender issues throughout course		60

How accurate these figures are is open to question. Once again, awareness of the content of colleagues’ modules appears to be quite low, one respondent noting, for example:

It is also possible that guest lecturers talk to specific groups only and their lectures are not advertised or open to all. This was commented upon by one of the student focus groups:

When guest lecturers are likely to be speaking of issues of relevance to the wider student population, staff should consider advertising the talk more widely.

Staff who included consideration of gender in their teaching used a mixture of methods to present these issues (table 5).

    Table 5:  Methods used to teach gender and equity 
    (% of respondents)
    Theoretical approach			40
    Anecdotal/experiential approach		34
    Other					26

Academics often used more than one method. The use of role models was a significant feature of the study. Acting as a role model was considered particularly important amongst the female lecturers. One noted on her questionnaire, for example:

The use of role models is problematic, however, as Poole and Isaacs (1993) note, because it cannot be assumed that role models will be accepted. Students will not necessarily view the role models provided as particularly desirable or relevant to their own situation. The problems associated with role modelling were expressed well by one female lecturer in interview:

In a previous exchange, however, this lecturer had commented:

As this lecturer obviously resented Baroness Thatcher being held up as a role model for her, there is no reason to suppose that female students will or should accept the role models being presented to them in the form of female academics.

The importance of mentoring was also discussed in interviews with staff. Female staff often mentioned the issue of ‘clubability’ and the old boy network, making the point that for women networking was often more difficult:

In these circumstances, the argument for the establishment for a female network of support and mentors is persuasive.

Staff in the case study interviews also talked of how important the issue of gender equity was in their personal lives and how this extended to their formal and informal relations at work:

Here, the lecturer is displaying aspects of the feminist view that ‘the personal is political’ and it is to be hoped that lecturers adhering to this viewpoint will encourage formal and/or informal discussion with students on changes in gender roles at home and at work over the last few decades. Language

The questionnaire asked staff their views of the importance of gender-neutral language. As Dale Spender (1980, p. 162) argues,

Women can feel alienated and excluded when male-oriented terminology is used as it supports the visibility and primacy of males. The importance of using as inclusive terms as possible is, therefore, clear.

The majority of staff felt the use of gender-neutral language to be important although there were differences of opinion about its relative importance with regard to lectures, students’ work, and course materials (see table 6).

    Table 6:  Importance of use of gender-neutral language 
    (% of respondents)

			  Very important   Average importance  Of no importance

    In lectures			70		   25		      5
    In students’ work		51		   41		      8
    In course materials		70		   24		      6

Worrying, however, is the (admittedly small) proportion of staff in these female dominated departments who felt this issue to be of no importance, especially with regard to students’ work.

Both student focus groups said that they had not been told specifically about the importance of gender neutral language, and the students had mixed views about its importance:

As the same student later commented, by using these terms the lecturer is excluding half of society.

As long as individuals speak the language of the dominant order, society will reproduce itself in fairly constant form. Using ‘he’ and ‘man’ renders women linguistically invisible and promotes male imagery at the expense of female imagery so that the world is assumed male unless proven otherwise. It also makes women outsiders (Spender, 1980). Lecturers have a responsibility to ensure that their own language is an inclusive as possible. They also need to be sure that students are aware of the importance of using gender-neutral language and, perhaps most importantly, they realise why it is important. Classroom dynamics

Staff were asked about classroom dynamics between male and female students. The results of numerous studies have found that men talk more than women in classroom situations (James and Drakich, 1993). Whether this is because this is a way of exercising dominance over women, or because women feel they will be judged negatively as too assertive is a matter of debate. Lecturers should, however, be aware of the possibility of domination of classroom interactions by males and the detrimental effect this can have on women.

There was a fairly even split between those who had encountered problems with male/female classroom interactions (including students/student and lecturer/student interaction), and those who had not (see table 7).

    Table 7:  The frequency of problems encountered with classroom interaction 
    (% of respondents)

    Frequently		 3
    Occasionally	48
    Never		49

Those respondents who commented on difficulties with student/student interactions sometimes mentioned problems with males’ reactions in teaching situations, e.g.:

More often, however, it was felt that in a female-dominated subject, the men in the class may feel excluded:

Lecturers also commented that mature and overseas students can be the cause of difficulties:

The staff interviewed for the case studies often commented that their teaching style and the dynamics of the class did sometimes change according to the gender of the group:

Although none of the staff interviewed would favour single-sex teaching, the nature of class dynamics between the sexes and the effect that this can have on the women’s participation does need to be taken into account.

3.2.2 Student Attitudes Student viewpoint of gender issues

Respondents to the questionnaire believed that students were interested in gender issues to a degree (table 8) and that students perceived gender issues as relevant (table 9).

    Table 8:  Lecturers’ opinion of student interest in gender issues 
    (% of respondents)

    Very interested		 9
    Fairly interested		58
    Not at all interested	 7
    Don’t know			26

    Table 9:  Lecturers’ opinion of relevance of gender issues to students 
    (% of respondents)

    Very relevant		 8
    Fairly relevant		61
    Of no relevance		 5
    Don’t know			26

The number of staff who had little idea of their students’ attitudes towards these issues is interesting suggesting that questions around gender and equity are not a matter for discussion for some staff.

Respondents often felt that attitudes towards gender issues varied according to sex, age and year of study and explained their answers in various ways:

It is interesting that in the first quote the female students’ attitude is termed ‘touchy’ while in the second it is ‘aware’ and ‘interested’. This perhaps says more about the respondents’ own attitudes to gender issues than those of their students. Other comments included:

The sentiment in the second quote, i.e. that gender issues are not a matter of debate these days, was echoed by other respondents, e.g.:

Library Association figures and those of Poland (1996) would dispute the view that the battle for equality has been won, and staff interviewed generally agreed that there was still a need for consciousness raising although how receptive students were was another question, as pointed out by an interviewee:

Although staff think that students generally do perceive gender issues to be of relevance and interest, anecdotal evidence suggests that ‘post-feminist’ attitudes are common within the student body. This reinforces the need for an exploration of perceptions of gender and equal opportunities within the curriculum so that students are encouraged to develop understanding and insight into the relevance of gender for the personal and professional lives. Student performance

Staff were asked about perceived differences between male and female performance with the aim of ascertaining if there was any stereotypical attitudes or assumptions with regard to the relative ability of the sexes. The power of the education process to reinforce gender stereotypes was noted by one interviewee when asked about the interests of the different genders:

The majority of respondents (60%) believed that male and female students performed equally well in all subjects of the curriculum. Of those who believed there was a difference in performance, female students were often considered to perform better in all areas of the curriculum, e.g.:

Male students were often considered better at IT related subjects and, by one respondent, at presentation work:

Here, the lecturer is acknowledging that stereotypes, and expectations of those stereotypes, can play a significant role in performance. The lack of confidence among female students was picked up in an interview:

The reasons why the female students are underconfident need to be addressed and remedial action taken to redress them. By including gender as an aspect of the curriculum, it is to be hoped that the female students will recognise how the views and roles of women have been socially constructed, and thus give them the wherewithal to take issue with continuing discrimination and stereotypical attitudes in their work and personal relationships.

4 Conclusions

The results of this study suggest that although gender is included in the teaching curriculum of departments of information and library studies, there is no co-ordinated effort to ensure that issues of equity are systematically raised and addressed. There is little doubt that teaching staff (particularly the female staff) are concerned about the position of women in the information professions and committed to change. Whether the teaching curriculum is the most appropriate vehicle for promoting issues of gender and equity is a matter of debate, however.

With appropriate planning, the curriculum can create an opportunity for students to consider their own and other people’s sex and gender related experiences and assumptions. The curriculum can assist the professional and personal development of students by a process of exploration and exchange of experiences and analysis, encouraging each student to identify the influence of gender role socialisation in their own development and behaviour in a variety of professional and social contexts. The ILS lecturer can help in this process by providing students with a knowledge of:

Apart from those subjects with a specifically equal opportunities content (e.g. human resource management), gender and equity issues can also be integrated into courses dealing with special subjects, e.g. library history, acquisitions and stock management, information technology, the internet. Departments should also consider drawing up guidelines for the use of gender-neutral language and ensure that all students are aware of the importance of inclusive terminology. In addition, there should be encouragement for female students to participate fully in professional events and networking including standing for office on committees.

Thought does need to be given as to how to include gender issues in the curriculum, whether to deal with them in a separate module or integrate them into all courses. Separate courses may appeal to those with a particular interest in the area but the integrated approach would ensure that all student (and staff) were exposed to gender issues which, judging by the complacency that some staff and apparently students display about the position of women in the profession, may well be necessary.

By including issues of gender and equity in the ILS curriculum, lecturers will be giving female students the intellectual means to challenge the status quo and question the inequalities that still exist in the information professions. Armed with knowledge of why things are the way they are, females entering the profession in the future should be confident about their ability and equipped to challenge the barriers to advancement that still exist.


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