Of gender roles

Two weeks ago I helped a student at the reference desk find information on taking the ACT exams.  It was during intersession and the library was nearly empty, so I was able to take my time.  It was also 2 days after listening to Joan Frye Williams, so my head was full of good customer service tips - I smiled a lot, told him he was in the right place even though our university library doesn't really have much on taking a college entrance exam, and when he thanked me profusely for helping him, I told him my regular desk schedule so that if he had further questions, he would know when I was available.  I left the desk hour feeling like I had done my good reference deed for the week.

He was back for my next desk shift, asking if I did English tutoring, offering more thanks for taking time to help him, and complimenting me on how sweet and nice I was, better than any other librarians, and offering to take me to coffee as a thank you.  I politely turned him down, tried to keep to the subject at hand, and emphasized that I was just doing my job.  His attention was beginning to make me uncomfortable.  He came for my next desk shift as well, with a few specific questions, but I am increasingly unable to help him.  I referred him to the science library and told him that he needed to inquire about tutoring someplace else.  He began to ask more personal questions, and was even more complimentary, telling me that I was very attractive and that my husband is a lucky man (I leaked that I was married in the hopes that he would back off, but no such luck).  A friend bailed me out from the desk so he was encouraged to leave, but he still lurked and caught me on my way back to my office to ask for more help.  I referred him to another desk and said that I needed to go to a meeting and beat a hasty retreat.

Now I'm dreading my next desk shift because I'm afraid he'll be there again.  I've resolved to confront him and tell him that his attention is making me uncomfortable and that he needs to keep his questions on a professional level.  I think I'm also going to tell him that I can't help him any more, which I really feel I can't.  I've referred him to other services that can better address his needs (tutoring, studying help), so I feel that his coming to the desk is just an excuse. 

Ironically, I just finished reading Maureen Dowd's Are Men Necessary? this weekend.  Contrary to what the title implies, Dowd bashes both sexes fairly equally.  What I find especially apt is her observation that feminism is nearly dead.  It's true, I think, that those of my generation feel like the battle of the sexes has been resolved - after all, we're no long excluded from nearly all professions or attending any universities, etc.  What we fail to remember is that we are still paid less across the board than men (even in libraries, where women are the solid majority), we are still not equally represented in our "representative" government (all our reproductive rights are decided by men), and sexual harrassment is still viewed by many as a woman's oversensitivity or inability to take a joke.  I have a friend who was made to feel guilty for reporting a coworker for feeling up her thigh, though he had been repeatedly told that she didn't appreciate his attentions.  While her superiors dutifully filed the report, she was still made to work with this man and listen to his whining about injustice.

We believe that we are equal and don't need to fight for our rights, yet we are still accultured to sexism in the media, in the workplace, and even with our peers.  Dowd says "Women are accustomed to putting up with immature and wormy behavior by men in the personal lives and in their professional lives...a woman who is willing to be teased may not be prepared to be degraded. ...For women, there is a steadily growing cost in personal dignity for playing the gender game at the office."  This all explains why it's difficult to speak up, especially in the workplace.  We have to evaluate whether the cost is worth benefit, if we may lose our jobs for standing up for our dignity.

My point is, here I am, trying to be helpful and a good librarian at the desk, and here I am, letting myself be degraded by a student in order to be helpful.  I don't fear him, but I'm angry that he is making me uncomfortable at a job I enjoy and I resent that I have to confront him.  I talk a lot of smack about being assertive and not taking any guff, but I really dislike confrontation.  It's something I really have to build myself up for.  All that timidity is a result of my inculturation of being a passive female - something I can intellectually acknowledge, but have to emotionally accept and act upon.

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