Gendered Expectations for Leadership in Libraries

(CC BY-SA 2.0)

Photo by Flickr user Nic McPhee (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In Brief

Despite significant gains in representation at the administration level, there is still a disparity between the percentage of women in our profession and women as library leaders. Additionally, even when women attain leadership roles, even top positions in libraries, there are still hurdles in the shape of gendered expectations. This article examines the history of gender representation in the field, discusses some recent trends, and then makes some recommendations for creating an environment in which women can succeed and how, more specifically, the profession could become more supportive of women in leadership roles.

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The path to the director’s office is convoluted for some and a straight shot for others, and the reasons we want to move up into administrative roles are even more varied. For some, financial considerations are uppermost. Others seek careers in administration based on a conviction that “I can do a better job than my boss. I know it!” And then there are those individuals who know, from the moment they fill out their graduate school applications, that they want to be the “head cheese in charge” of a library. Both men and women (and people who do not fall at either end of that false binary) can and do make good leaders, but stereotypes and gendered expectations present an unexpected barrier for many of us. Women are often perceived as nice, kind, and nurturing, while men are usually perceived as forceful, knowledgeable, and decisive. If you do not fall neatly into one of these stereotypical modes, or even if you do, gender expectations can be at the root of a lot of workplace difficulties. In our case, both authors made the decision to seek a job in administration in part based upon the disproportionate gender representation among library directors, university librarians, and other leadership positions in the field. Also, let’s be honest: we both knew we could do it better than some of the ways we had seen it done. And yes, we both ran face-first into gendered expectations.

Anyone reading this article is probably aware of the disparity in the numbers of men and women in librarianship. It’s something that people talk about. A lot. Since the beginning of the 20th century, women have comprised 75% of the librarian profession (Beck, 1991). But, by the middle of the century, the recruitment of men into the profession tipped the scales in administrative and management positions (O’Brien, 1983). Librarianship then became a predominantly female profession that was overwhelmingly led by men. This trend changed in the latter part of the last century and into the current one: according to Association of Research Libraries (ARL), male director representation dropped to around 40% (ARL, 2010, cited in a literature review published by DeLong in 2013), which is a significant change. However, since the gender breakdown of the profession as a whole is still around 80% women and 20% men (according to multiple sources cited), this is still not a representative number. Moreover, while it seems that we may have balanced the scales in terms of leadership positions (balanced to 50/50, that is, with some claims of salary parity for those that make it to the top) (Deyrup, 2004), it is clear that a related issue began to emerge, probably due to the increasing numbers of women in leadership positions: a strong (mis)perception of women as leaders. Meaning, even though there are more women leaders now, we are still not doing it right. Or, more to the point, we are not doing it the way people want us to do it. We do not act like men. This is not, then, parity. It isn’t enough to have women in administrative positions and for them to be paid at similar rates, though that’s a great start. We want leaders, male or female or people who don’t identify in those ways, to be valued for what they each bring to their organizations.

In this essay, we will consider some of the gendered expectations of leadership and how all of this bears on academic library leadership. We will also tell you how it makes us feel. We hope that it makes you angry like it did us. We hope that it makes you want to help us change the system. We are speaking both from our experiences and from evidence found in the literature, and we know that the lived daily experiences of gender-non-conforming and non-binary individuals can play out differently. We also want to affirm that race, age, and other cultural perspectives will influence not only your own experiences but the reactions of those around you. Much of our research, which affirmed our suspicions, falls within the library literature, but there is a large body of work in business and psychology about the role of gender and gendered expectations in leadership. One further caveat: we know that available statistics usually skew towards ARL libraries, but we feel this reflects the reality present in academic libraries at large. We hope that some of what we have learned personally and through considering the literature of the field is transferrable to other library types and even to other female dominated professions, but we would never presume to suggest that our solutions are a one-size-fits-all response to these expectations.

Gendered Leadership in Our Lives

The authors proposed this article out of a joint frustration with our own experiences as we transitioned from middle management as a department head and an information literacy coordinator respectively. We experienced a broad range of situations that were clearly gendered in nature, experiences we shared with each other and with other women leaders in our own and related professions (Harris, 1992) only to find that we weren’t alone. It helped ameliorate the frustration to know others have had similar or even identical experiences. Many female leaders we know were told to be nicer to their subordinates. We’ve also had similar experiences with being called slightly (or even blatantly) sexist things that, when mentioned to higher ups, were met responses like “well, that’s just the culture around here.” We we were not the only ones who’d had experiences at work with people who disliked our “style” as women leaders. Being told to contain our anger when we see male colleagues yell at even the highest administrators with no negative repercussion is another source of frustration. For us, writing this article is a way to take our frustrations and experiences and turn them into something useful.

When we spoke about our own experiences to a small group of other female library administrators, we were overwhelmed but not really surprised by their sharing of similar experiences. We asked permission to share some of their words in this essay, and promised anonymity in return. The authors both know that “challenging the status quo strongly enough to have an impact on it but not so strongly that one cannot succeed within it” (Fletcher, 1999, p. 131) is a difficult balance to strike, and giving others voice is important to us.

One of our colleagues explained, “At my current job, I recently stood/spoke up for all the women… when one employee thought it was appropriate to make a sexist comment. [Our male superior] still hasn’t spoken to this employee because the conversation makes him ‘uncomfortable.’” Another spoke about how she’s afraid to speak up: “I want to start a blog but I won’t because I know it will be used against me. I want to tweet like I used to [before coming to work at my current job] but know I can’t. It’s just so disheartening to know if I was a man that this would not be a thing.” We also heard about what happens when women take middle management roles in the intersection of librarianship and educational technology: “I suspect that the head of the tech/library department both a) thinks I’m stupid because I’m a woman and a librarian and b) is threatened by me because he’s realizing that I’m a lot better than him at certain things. It would be funny if it weren’t so frustrating.” Another participant in the conversation shared how it’s not just leaders in libraries, but also women who take leadership positions in professional organizations: “I remembered watching certain women get torn apart in my state association for being too brash, too bossy, too ‘too’. I really admired many of them, and this still makes me sad and angry.” We were also pleased to hear what can happen when things go well, from someone who had left a previous job due to gender-based problems: “Thank the high heavens I landed in a job (with an amazing female director) that supports me, encourages me to succeed and fail and all that good stuff!”

Gendered Leadership Everywhere

These themes were born out when we looked beyond our own experiences. What we found in looking through literature, both in and outside of our field, was at times enraging and at times soothing in that it made us feel better that we were not imagining bias. It exists. Gendered expectations of women leaders is a thing people in library science and beyond have been writing about for some time. A piece on the Harvard Business Review blog network is especially worth noting here. “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?” by Tomas Chamorro-Premuz (a professor of business psychology at University College London and a faculty member at Columbia University) features a discussion of literature related to traits of successful leaders. In particular, Chamorro-Premuz posits that “the main reason for the uneven management sex ratio [in for-profit industries] is our inability to discern between confidence and competence,” (¶2). The author also spoke eloquently about the problematic nature inherent in the narcissism of Hollywood-Picture-Perfect leadership, as well as how easy it is to promote such leaders because “a much bigger problem is the lack of career obstacles for incompetent men” (¶10). We all know competent, supportive, and deeply qualified male library leaders, but it does bear repeating: there are not as many career obstacles for men as for women who want to ascend to administration, which means it is easier for men who hold themselves authoritatively without actual authority to fool people into believing the lie. This is not to say that all incompetent library administrators are men, but it does say something that our profession is made up of an estimated 80% women, and yet the women in leadership is in the 50% range.

This idea that fewer obstacles are placed in the paths of men who aspire to leadership is born out in other research. Of particular interest is the work of Ruth Simpson who wrote, “Masculinity at Work: The Experiences of Men in Female Dominated Occupations,” a little over ten years ago, in her work focusing on “pink professions.” The conclusions shared by Simpson reflect our personal experiences in the field. Even if the subjects of Simpson’s study were uncomfortable with the distinctions, they readily admitted that much of what is done within “women’s work” fields is divided into front line work (women) and management (men). One particular criticism struck home: “ideologies and discourses of gender have a crucial role to play in promoting and sustaining the sexual division of labour and the social definition of tasks as either ‘men’s work’ or ‘women’s work,’” (5). Crossing the lines of expected roles has multiple possible repercussions. Negative outcomes, such as feminization and stigmatization, are possible, but the positive outcomes for men – such as “career effect” (implied professionalism and immediate respect) and “assumed authority” (being seen as the one in charge, despite a lack of experience) – are much more common. Even more discouraging was how, in this study, male librarians and nurses felt freer to make mistakes and not be called to task for it, especially with regards to mistakes outside of the performance of duties, such as being repeatedly late to work.

Women and Leadership: We Keep Reading and Writing about the Dichotomy

As previously mentioned, the struggle of women to live up to or to fight gendered expectations of leadership positions is well-documented and a topic of strong dichotomies. Some say women are doing quite well as leaders and some articles even suggest women make the best leaders. Fairly recently, the mainstream media has been touting that companies can be most successful if they hire women to lead, while surveys of personnel still reveal that people prefer to work for men (Eagly, 2007). When women are leaders, they are expected to act in a very specific, gendered way. Alice Eagly noted at an invited address at the American Psychological Association in 2006 that:

Women are faced with accommodating the sometimes conflicting demands of their roles as women and their roles as leaders. In general, people expect and prefer that women be communal, manifesting traits such as kindness, concern for others, warmth, and gentleness and that men be agentic, manifesting traits such as confidence, aggressiveness, and self direction (Eagly, 4).

To our eyes, that quote speaks to a commonly held perception: only men are expected to be agenic. If women are, then those women fail the “gender” test.

We found similar themes everywhere we looked, and we found a lot while looking. In fact, we were surprised to find how deeply our topic had been researched previously. It was not so much that we thought we were the first to realize the issues of gender in leadership as that we hadn’t expected so much of it to fall within the realm of library science literature. In our experiences and training, we’d been presented with an image of library leadership as a somewhat monochromatic perspective, as predominantly male. One piece we encountered went so far as to explain the gender breakdown thusly: “It was the natural order for men to be heads of academic libraries, particularly major research libraries, and the male minority presumably advanced the careers of other men” (DeLong, 64). Regardless of the past, the representation in our leadership has seen significant improvement. However, DeLong (who provided the statistics we quoted earlier in the article) shared a perspective that is a bit disheartening:

Women who aspire to leadership positions in libraries should be aware that the pace of change and acceptance of women in leadership roles continues to be slow, perhaps even slackening, and they will continue to find barriers and obstacles to surmount in attaining the career and leadership roles that they desire. (69)

It would be easy for us to say that we, as a profession (both librarians and the subset of academic librarians), just need to set aside gendered expectations, but that would be naive at best and more realistically could be seen as disingenuous. Fighting stereotypes definitely needs to be part of the effort, but we need to do more. By writing this article, we are hoping to confront these expectations as a first step. The larger work of intersectional feminists is slowly but surely shifting the attention of our broader culture, and this essay is our way to add our voices to theirs. We want to go a step further, however. We would like to share with you some ideas that have seen us and colleagues through difficult times. We would also invite you to comment on this essay to share your own approaches, with the obvious caveat of asking you to pay attention to the Lead Pipe Comment Policy.

More Personal Experience

So, how does it make two female library administrators feel to read article after article about how people really prefer male leaders and if they have to have a woman leader, they’d like her to fit their stereotype of “Be soft. But, wait. Don’t be too soft.”? Well, it feels like reality.

We came together to write this article because we started sharing our personal experiences with each other and found much in common. While both of the authors feel supported by our respective administrations, we have at times, especially early in our management careers, felt isolated, marginalized, and a myriad of other feelings because we weren’t perceived as the “right kind of female leader.” Not nice enough or too nice. Too harsh and bossy or too wishy washy. The interest in this literature and research came from a genuine place: from two women who do not fit the stereotype of overly warm or nice but both consider themselves to be empathetic, kind, and effective.

Conducting this survey of the literature, reading about these issues in depth, made us both angry, but it was also an affirming experience because it confirmed that we have not been imagining things. There is a clear gender bias both in how employees view their bosses and what their expectations are for those leaders. The question for us is now: what do we do to change these perceptions, if anything, and more importantly, what can we do to help our peers who understand this struggle and those who will come after us?

What Do We Do Now?

Talk to anyone who has researched the topic of library leadership and gender in the last thirty years and you will get a lot of nodding heads. “Yeah, I read that too.” “Yep, that’s what I was finding.” Librarians are writing and reading and writing and reading about the problems of gender in our profession, but we need to do more.

We need to walk the talk. We, managers and staff alike, need to be good allies. There is no one experience for women or women leaders or women academic librarian leaders, and we need to listen to the experiences of others – not just people who are like us. How do you get people to be supportive and good allies in the workplace? There are certainly best practices to follow such as partnering with campus Human Resources offices to offer training that address sexism, racism, homophobia, and encourage inclusivity. Having others come into your library to offer the training also takes away the idea that the woman leader is the one pushing the agenda. This last thought is crucial. At larger institutions with larger libraries, library administrators can probably dictate these kinds of training without pushback, but at smaller institutions like ours we want to make sure people don’t feel singled out.

But what does the woman leader do when she feels that she’s fighting an uphill battle without allies and is treated differently because of her gender? She must begin to confront the situation and document mistreatment.

We also need to work to fight against the stereotypes and preconceived notions. The tattooed and tough librarian is just as misleading a stereotype as the bunned, cardigan wearing, shushing one. Nobody is going to demonstrate exclusively female traits (conciliatory, nurturing, etc.) nor exclusively male ones (decisive, powerful, etc.). This suggestion is admittedly a perfect example of “easier said than done,” but it still bears stating.

Our national and state professional organizations need to help. There are numerous opportunities for leadership development, but none that specifically focus on the development and support of women as leaders. Women leaders may have increased our numbers and we may have achieved parity in salary in certain kinds of positions in academic librarianship, but that’s just the start. Our job descriptions might be identical, but the day-to-day reality of our jobs can look different from our male counterparts, and we need some help. Existing support systems and training opportunities, such as the Leading Change Institute (formerly the Frye Leadership Institute) and the College Library Directors Mentor Program are a helpful start, but gender is barely mentioned, if at all, in such settings. There are structures in place for general leadership growth, but almost nothing exists that specifically addresses gender.

Both of the authors have been fortunate in the support we’ve received as we worked our way up the hierarchy of academic librarianship, but we both also had major hurdles to overcome with regards to gendered expectations. We can’t help but think that if we have faced these challenges, others have to be facing similar or even worse. We needed and created a support system in order to keep growing as leaders, but we know that’s not enough. The real fear is that if we do not change the system, if we don’t create a space for women to be encouraged, respected, promoted, and treated equally in library management, then the numbers will again drop and there will be less women leadership in libraries. Again. Women leaders are receiving too many mixed messages. Those who want to make the changes do not often have enough structural power to do so. We need a larger, vocal, active voice. We want to encourage our community to take action and develop workshops and other continuing education opportunities specifically for women. But they need to be in a safe environment. Women deans and directors need a place to talk to each other where they can talk about what really happens in their workplaces and not worry that it will get back to their campuses or libraries. It needs to be constructive and honest. We need to know what to do with problem situations at work where we know we are being treated unfairly, but no one on our campuses can give us more honest advice than “keep documenting it.” The problem is that documenting things and eventually removing the people involved doesn’t get at changing the underlying culture and systemic sexism. We need training in how to deal with situations that are not taken seriously at our workplaces. We need to create a stronger, more active and open peer group.

We’ve developed this kind of community in the backchannels and whisper networks, but we’d like to see it become more intentional and supported by our professional organizations. Furthermore, there is no space where most of us feel safe enough to share our thoughts about how we are treated as leaders. That is one of the biggest problems of all. At the very least, our leadership literature and training needs to be gender-inclusive (meaning that it specifically addresses the challenges of gender) instead of gender-neutral (which usually comes out male-oriented). We feel strongly that women do not need to act more like men. Men also do not need to just play their societally expected “gender role.” And while we have mostly used the convenient shorthand associated with the fictional gender binary, we also strongly believe that people who identify as other than cisgendered need space and freedom of gender-expression as well. We all need to be ourselves.

Instead of a Conclusion, A Call to Action

We need to give each other room to maneuver and grow. The most important advice we have was reflected in a recently published article: Christina Neigel writes, “Librarians need to be empowered to question assumptions about what it means to be a librarian in the 21st century by having a clear understanding of how their own profession is subject to social relations of power and domination,” (522). In other words, we need to remember that libraries are changing and growing organizations that need room to reflect our past as well as our future.

Through writing this article, the authors struggled with how honest to be about our own experiences. We know this problem is more than our immediate environs. There are certainly individuals who have made us uncomfortable, like the administrator who made an off color comment and defended it when an objection was voiced, but it’s not about the individuals. It’s about the system, the culture. Women need to mentor each other and build each other up. Finding a network of other female administrators is invaluable. The women who are like-minded, who have been there and done that, can lead you through the minefield that is often library administration. Part of our conversation took place in a private online space, and the affirmations we got made us realize that we are trying to start a community. We need a way to pair mentors with mentees. Perhaps this article is a bit of us thinking out loud, with a solid grounding in the literature, about what shape that could take. There are only two of us, but we see a need for something like the #libtechgender movement. We are proposing a partner hashtag and community that could grow beyond this article. We want to start #libleadgender. We want to find a way to pair those who are considering leadership with those who’ve already taken that step. We know there are models that work to pair new leaders with experienced administrators, but part of our intention in writing this piece is to encourage future leaders to take that step. We’ve both had conversations with new librarians who see what it’s like to lead a library and have sworn it wasn’t for them. But again, there are only two of us and if we really want to change perceptions and expectations of gender for leadership in libraries, we will need help. What do you say? Are you in?

The authors would like to thank the people involved with #libtechgender discussions, especially Coral Sheldon-Hess, for getting us thinking in this way. We might not have pursued writing this article if not for their important work. We would also like to thank our support group of other female librarians for their insight, personal experiences and quotes that helped frame this work. And of course thanks to our reviewers Marie Radford, Annie Pho, and Ellie Collier.

Selected Bibliography

Beck, C. (1991). Reference Services: A Handmaid’s Tale. Library Journal, 116(7), 33-37.

Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2013, August 22). Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2013/08/why-do-so-many-incompetent-men/

DeLong, K. (2013). Career Advancement and Writing about Women Librarians: A Literature Review. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 8(1), 59-75.

Deyrup, M. (2004). Is the Revolution Over? Gender, Economic, and Professional Parity in Academic Library Leadership Positions. College & Research Libraries, 65(3), 242-250.

Eagly, A. (2007). Female Leadership Advantage And Disadvantage: Resolving The Contradictions. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 31, 1-12.

Fletcher, J.K. (1999). Disappearing Acts: Gender, Practice, and Relational Practice at Work. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Harris, R.M. (1992). Librarianship: The Erosion of a Woman’s Profession. Norwood, NJ: Ablex. Pub. Corp.

Neigel, C. (2015). LIS Leadership and Leadership Education: A Matter of Gender. Journal of Library Administration, 55(7), 521-534.

O’Brien, Patricia Nancy (1983). “The Recruitment of Men into Librarianship, Following World War II.” In The status of Women in Librarianship: Historical, Sociological, and Economic Issues, edited by Kathleen M. Heim. New York: Neal-Schuman, 51-66.

Simpson, R. (2004). Masculinity at Work: The Experiences of Men in Female Dominated Occupations. Work Employment and Society, 18 (2), 349-368.

24 Responses

  1. I was once told by my director that I needed to “be less scary”. I asked what she meant by that, because I’m a pretty even-tempered person in general. Turns out what she really meant was that I needed to be more humble. She said my coworkers found my proficiency in technology to be “intimidating”. So in fighting my way into the tech field, where my expertise is constantly called into question by the males around me, while they are usually taken at their word when claiming expertise, I somehow also have to be more humble? Walking all these tightropes takes a toll on women (and anyone falling into the category of “other” in any given field.)

  2. Dan C.

    Well said and an important call to action. I never experienced blatant homophobic comments until I became an Academic Library Director (one would think you’d hear them in corporate libraries, but I never did). But I also got to see women get treated worse in managerial positions and that extends through all my previous types of job environments.

    We can really only enact this change if we all work together and share stories like you have.

    “We all need to be ourselves.” So true.

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful article.

    One thing that I think we can add, is that this experience is also not limited to leadership. Those who identify as women, even when not in leadership roles, encounter roadblocks when they don’t act like a “woman” would act. For example this happens when we raise critical questions without sugar-coating, when we are direct.

    The other thing that I think we need to explore, is that it is just as often individuals who identify as women as those who do not, who enforce systemic sexism and gender bias in the workplace. How do we have the conversation about gender-bias and systemic sexism on all levels? Will it be a trickle down, or will it be a movement up? Will it be both? How do those of us who are not leaders engage in this discourse with our administrators without repercussion?

    1. angela pashia

      I agree that we need to also explore the ways that women leaders are sometimes the ones who uphold systemic sexism. I know that the call to action here is already a big project, but I would propose adding some discussion of how women battling against sexism in their own careers can avoid then imposing the same obstacles on the women who report to them. I have seen a middle manager complain about sexist structures holding her back, but then turn around and re-enact some of the same sexist biases toward her own reports. That seems even more frustrating than having those encounters with someone who seems clueless about such structures – not that ignorance of these structures is ok for leaders anymore, but on an emotional level, it seems easier to deal with from someone who never talks about systemic sexism than from someone who seems like they should know better… If that makes any sense!

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  5. Nono Burling

    I had an interesting experience recently. I was at a week long Library Leadership immersion program. There were 32 people selected to participate in the program and only 4 were male. (You had to apply and be chosen to participate). The interesting thing I noticed is that whenever there was a special assignment where each of the four groups needed to send one member forward at least two of the chosen representatives were male. These were not aggressive men pushing their way forward. I commented on it to my group. Despite the fact that we were all being trained to become Library Leaders WE the women chose our male counterparts to represent us. I was not the only person to make this observation. I don’t really know what it means but I think it was something important to note.

  6. Carolyn Carpan

    Michelle and Jessica, thanks for this article. It’s good to be reminded we are not alone in these experiences. Count me in!

  7. Evie Lu

    Sure, I’ll join in. newly graduated library science major looking for a mentor, would like chance to gain leadership skills though too.

  8. Thank you for such a thoughtful article. Women in work is a passion of mine and dealing with sexism on an almost daily basis has made me very sensitive to it. I often get told that I’m ‘too pretty’ ‘too outgoing’ (too) to be a librarian. I’m also a woman of colour which means at conferences there’s that issue as well ;) I noticed that library leadership is predominantly male but everything below is female – very weird actually. But, it also comes from other women as well – the assumption that I’m not going to know as much as my male colleague which somehow is even worse.

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  10. Jacqueline

    As a new manager, when I was having trouble with my staff, I was advised by HR to be friendlier, for example, by baking cakes and cookies and bringing them in. I was told this would endear me to people.

    The trouble in question centred around complaints from a minority of staff that my communication style was harsh, abrupt and bordered on bullying — two years on I am still mystified by this interpretation. To make it even worse, the complaints were made to my own manager, a notorious hardass, famous around the college for his temper and coercive ways. To hear from this man that I needed to be nicer was a bitter pill to swallow indeed.

    Incidentally, all of the complainants were women.

      1. Jacqueline

        Shame, isn’t it? Luckily I also work with a handful of reasonable people who reassure me that I am not a hysterical tyrant.

        I do bake, though. But I just like baking.

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  20. Joe Smith

    As a male graduate student I visited all of my 22 libraries in my library system. In one Library I asked the (female) director if there were any males working there. She said No. I said, Has any males ever worked here? She said not since the library was built in the late 1800s…. . Then she turns to the other female librarian and said….”You know… I wish we did have a Male Librarian working here. I have many heavy boxes that need to go to the loft” —OH so you would hire a “Male Librarian” for his brawn, and not his brains? I worked in manual labor jobs all through my degree program, and the reason I got the masters degree is to get away from doing manual labor. If Females want the same pay, in the library field as male librarians, then they can kick off their high heal shoes and put on a pair of sneakers and some gloves and move the boxes to the loft. All through college I was taught diversity, diversity, diversity….. and in 99% of the libraries I visited, woman were the sole choosers of all the books in the stacks. That’s NOT diversity,