Who's the One Left Saying Sorry? Gender/tech/librarianship

There’s yet another journal article making the rounds in which researchers find that, sure enough, men in the study generally overestimate their abilities, underestimate those of women, and women underestimate their own abilities. Lately, I’ve been reflecting a lot that, in terms of my eventual career prospects…

I will never be as attractive a candidate to (many) folks looking to improve their tech as a man who comes in and overpromises the impossible.

Because while I’m ambitious, I want to be able to get things done. Generally, working with others, I do get things done. To some degree, I don’t want to work for people who are more excited by the impractical than by work we could complete and support for 5-10 years. I want to work for and with people who understand that maintenance is critical and that creating an exciting thing is generally not worth it if nobody uses it. But I also know that when people aren’t necessarily familiar with technology, they can’t always tell the difference between an awesome thing we should do and an awesome thing we shouldn’t.

Overpromising is a pattern I’ve come to recognize in library technology and, indeed, in other areas. In encountering this article, I was struck by another question…

How many women1in libtech (and libraries generally) underestimate their own abilities because their work consists of following up on one of these overpromises and having to apologize over and over for not being able to deliver?

How does a woman feel about her skills, capacity, self, and accomplishments, if her work consists of cashing or voiding checks someone else wrote?2

I want to experiment! I want to try things! I want to feel good about solving problems and making peoples' data better, their systems smoother, their lives easier. I want to help people have the tools to make whatever they’re doing just a bit easier. When it comes down to actually committing to something at scale, to promising that a large project will really make this better, to saying that we can and should do X because wow look at these outcomes (things which I am fortunate enough to be able to do)… I at least want to eat my own crow if it doesn’t work.


  1. Melissa Hubbard points out in a follow-up to our conversation that, when it intersects with internalized misogyny, with racism, with classism, with transphobia, cis white middle class women can also be guilty of underestimating the work of their female colleagues. I think the important takeaway there is that we shouldn’t assert we’re all in the same place in re: male overconfidence/underestimation of us. Otherwise we won’t fix anything, including ourselves. ↩︎

  2. A phrase I used to describe work in a position where I was being that person to say “I’m sorry, we can’t do this.” It evoked responses from anger over the need to reimagine a project to tears, to all of which I was the person absorbing and responding. I did grow and develop my emotional capacity in ways which have been useful and I hope it’s made me better at what I’m doing now. It was, however, extremely unpleasant. ↩︎

Ruth Kitchin Tillman
Sally W. Kalin Early Career Librarian for Technological Innovations

Card-carrying quilter. Mennonite. Writer. Worker.