SAA 2017: Session 204 Representation without Leadership: Assessing Stress and Gender in the Archival Workplace

In advance of the 2017 Annual Meeting, we invited SNAP members to contribute summaries of panels, section meetings, forums, and pop-up sessions. Summaries represent the opinions of their individual authors; they are not necessarily endorsed by SNAP, members of the SNAP Steering Committee, or SAA.

Guest Author: Kate Madison, Processing Archivist, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

The session “Representation without Leadership” was designed to present the results of the Archivists’ Stress Survey, a research project that sought to explore gender as an influence on leadership and workplace stress. The panel was presented by the survey researchers: Rita Casey, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at Wayne State University; Kristen Chinery, Reference Archivist at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University; Alexandra A. A. Orchard, Technical and Metadata Archivist at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University; and Leslie Van Veen McRoberts, Local History Archivist at the Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture at Salisbury University. A fifth panelist, Alison Stankrauff, was unable to attend SAA.

The topic driving the panelists’ research was, “Why do female archivists continue to face challenges?” Their work was inspired by two Women’s Archivists Roundtable (WAR) presentations at SAA 2015: “The Archival Mystique: Feminists Solving ‘The Problem’ by Living Dangerously” and “Under Pressure: How Workplace Change Impacts Women Archivists.” The four main questions presented by the researchers were as follows:

  1. Is the leadership of archival work distributed similarly to gender?
  2. Is there an interaction between archivists’ gender and their work expectations?
  3. Does the gender of archivists influence the intensity of their expected work?
  4. Does stress differently affect archivists according to gender?

The SAA panel began with McRoberts providing an historical overview of the female archivist in the professional landscape. McRoberts argued that the archival profession was dominated by men in its early years, an outcome likely rooted in the profession’s early association with the largely male field of history. In 1936, only 23.2% of SAA members were women. Female representation in SAA grew to around 33% in the late 1950s, and stayed fairly constant through the 1970s. McRoberts noted that the official membership numbers were likely not indicative of women’s involvement in archives and archiving at this time, and that SAA was viewed as a “gentlemen’s club” for many years around the mid-century, a view that likely discouraged female membership. The first woman-authored article appeared in The American Archivist in the early 1970s, and SAA had its first two female presidents in the 1980s. Now, the profession is female-dominated and more closely associated with librarianship than with the history profession. In 2015’s SAA Employment Survey, about 73% of respondents were female.

Orchard and Chinery presented next on the survey methodology. The researchers had looked at previous data collected by SAA, its sections, and its subcommittees (particularly, WAR and the SAA Mentoring Subcommittee) in order to determine the type of demographic and general data relevant to their questions that would be useful for providing informed context about the profession. The researchers determined to gather demographic and general data along the following lines: gender identification, race identification, age, job type, and compensation. They omitted location data due to privacy concerns relating to identifying respondents. In building the survey questions, the researchers also included a mood scale, an organizational climate description, a brief symptom inventory (BSI-18), a social provisions scale, and a forty-item Big Five mini-marker set. Combining archives-specific, demographic, and psychologically-descriptive questions were all necessary for the desired analysis. Responses to the survey were solicited via listservs over a period of several weeks.

Casey presented next on the survey results, stressing that their analysis was ongoing. She provided a detailed breakdown of the number of respondents by gender (female, male, preferred not to say) and by position (administrator, archivist, other). Approximately 20% of the respondents were men, and 80% were women. A small proportion of self-identified administrators took the survey, compared to those who self-identified their position as “archivist” or “other.” Corresponding to the four hypotheses above, the overarching survey findings were:

  1. Archival administrators are more likely to be men than women. Although there aren’t as many male archivists as female, men had a better chance of becoming an administrator than did women.
  2. Male administrators will show less social support (an important indicator for workplace stress and productivity). However, male admins are generally more open to new ideas.
  3. Work intensity will be greater for women archivists, but intensity is high overall for the profession.
  4. Female archivists will show more stress and more negative mood than male archivists.

The most “shocking,” finding, according to Casey, was the stress level and high negative mood of archivists across gender. Although the majority of respondents (over 60%) received a “normal” rating on a clinical mood scale, a significant number of respondents showed a clinically elevated negative mood, with many in the range of clinical depression. Among other indicators, the results demonstrate that archivists have more professional stress than do teachers – another well-researched high-stress profession. Casey stressed that these results were not due to the profession attracting a high proportion of personalities that tend towards depression; other questions in the survey were designed to understand the distribution of personality traits among archivists and to correct for personality vs. workplace-caused stress. Casey ended her portion of the panel presentation by stating that “As a professor and as a clinician, I’m real worried about all you guys.”

Chinery wrapped up the presentation part of the session by identifying the next steps for the researchers. They want to increase awareness about their findings and the amount of stress in the archival workplace, to improve the work environment of archivist, to advance appreciation for archives and archivists, and to conduct further research.

At the following question-and-answer part of the session, the panelists responded to questions relating to further research and analysis. They admitted they had not finished analyzing the gathered data relating to age. In the future, they want to examine the roles of physical illness, caretaker responsibilities, outside social support, and career change on archivists’ stress levels. They noted that income levels were directly related to stress levels, and that archivists’ income is shockingly low given the importance of the profession (to which Chinery quipped, “I told you,” eliciting a laugh from the audience). Finally, the panelists announced that they plan to publish their research – both data and analysis – so that their findings may be more detailed and accessible to the archival community.

1 thought on “SAA 2017: Session 204 Representation without Leadership: Assessing Stress and Gender in the Archival Workplace

  1. Ali Loh

    I don’t know if this is the case but I think that When an employee is a male and his boss is also a male, the stress procured by the boss is way more important then if the employee was a woman. It’s also the same when the employee is a woman and the boss is a woman. I think it’s because your boss is the same gender as you, so he feels like he can push you more because he’s a man/woman too and knows where the limits of an individual are (if you see what I mean).

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