6 Ways for Nonprofit Boards to Rock Gender Equity

votes for women on boards Gender equity in nonprofit cultural organizations — and in museums, particularly — is a subject that’s on our minds these days. We’re gathering information, ideas, and pointed declarations from our research and conversations, including what boards of trustees need to do to model and promote gender equity, as well as hold themselves and their staffs accountable to making museum workplaces level playing fields for women and men.

Fact is, the commitment to gender diversity and equity starts at the top.  As with any value system, if organizational leaders don’t walk the talk, who will?  Board leadership must commit to it in their own ranks, not only by sustaining a thoughtful balance among trustees, but by rejecting stereotypes in their appointments of officers and committee chairpeople (that’s right, we still see lots of women filling the role of board secretary and chairing the events, collections and program committees and men filling the role of board treasurer and chairing the finance, strategic planning and building committees). Don’t make gender the automatic default in populating these key roles.  And don’t make it the default in hiring the CEO.

Stereotyping of any type and gender bias need to be addressed head-on.  Never underestimate the need for board candidates and board members to learn about how to serve on a board and how to model your organization’s values. Teach about power (its uses and abuses), the legal and ethical ramifications of bias, and the toll it takes on morale. Take the time to continually educate your board.  This goes for staff leadership, too.

Be mindful of language. Patterns of behavior and language can’t be broken without recognizing them first. Be mindful of how board members use language and whether board discussions and task assignments are gender neutral.

Don’t tolerate stereotyping and gender bias on the part of staff leaders.  A board must ensure that staff leaders are just as accountable for their actions with staff as they are for the financial bottom line.  A “star” leader is no match for the corroding influence of her or his bias.  Encourage a culture of transparency, whistleblower protection, and swift action.

Staff need to learn how to deal with boards or board members who are out-of-bounds.  From intentional action to the casual remark, boards can support staff with training, policies, and systems of accountability that include discipline. Model healthy board-staff relationship-building.  This is about respect. Period.

Finally, you don’t have to be on the executive or personnel committees to be on the lookout outside the field for ideas, information, and solutions that could be adopted or adapted by your board, staff leadership and/or the HR department.

Women+Museums: The AAM Version


Hello women and everyone who champions gender equity in museum land,

We’re going to Atlanta and we want to hear from you. Specifically, here are some times and places where we’ll be. If you’re free and would like to join a focus group on Women+Museums, see the list below and come talk! We want to hear from you.

  • Sunday, April 26, 2:30-3:30, Women and men aged 45+
  • Monday, April 27, 4:00-5:00 pm, Women and men, 30-45
  • Tuesday, April 28, 2:00-3:00, Women under 30

We’ll meet up in the registration area at the convention center.

Making It About People Not Process

Invest II


One of the things Anne and I focused on in Leadership Matters is the need for the museum field to realize how important people are. What do we mean by that? Just that too often organizations tend to invest time, energy and tons of hard won money in stuff. For museums that might be a new building; a new storage area; a new van with air suspension; the annual gala. You get the idea. In another world, in education, in healthcare, in the environment, there are probably variations on this theme. And in truth there’s nothing wrong with building or buying a new anything. But sometimes, we feel, museums in general, and perhaps smaller museums in particular, are more ready to invest in things than in people. One of the lessons we learned from the leaders we spoke with is that investing in people brings an enormous pay back.

More than a few of the leaders we interviewed spoke about the time their institutions had invested in them. Some were wealthy museums that provided coaches for new leaders; some were more modest institutions that provided time (and money) so their new directors could participate in leadership training with the local chamber of commerce. It’s not really about how much money is spent, but it is an acknowledgement from the leadership, whether that’s the board, the president, or the department head, that the organization believes in its new employee. That right out of the blocks, it puts faith in you and trusts you will use your new training wisely. How could a new employee not respond well? It is a metaphor for caring and value. It says we’re investing in you.

The flip side of that is that well-governed organizations who value employees also hold them accountable. And by that I don’t mean that they assume the work will get done, that employees aren’t coming in late, leaving early or spending two hours at the gym at lunch. That’s understood. What I mean is accountable to each other. This week my colleagues had another meeting about meetings–our second. Sadly, it veered quickly down a rat hole of process, resulting in a complex and multi-colored chart of the types of meeting our department could have and how they might be run. What was missing was no one ever asked us to bring our best selves to  meetings. To be self-aware enough to leave the person who interrupts at the door along with the eye-roller, the looney Pollyanna who says yes without thinking and the strong, silent person who won’t risk anything–even an idea. My point is only that an organization can show it values its employees in lots of ways. And they’re all important from the overt–health insurance, paid time off, sometimes housing or childcare particularly if it’s located in a neighborhood of one percenters–to the more subtle–accountability, respect, kindness, and the idea that while you’re at work, you’re putting the organization and its myriad projects, needs and concerns first. It seems like that should be a given, but too often organizations fail to set the expectation, fail to acknowledge that expectations haven’t been met, and are too scared or uncomfortable to talk about them. Long ago, I had a family member who when children (not his own) behaved inappropriately, would say, “You get the kids you want.” Yes, it’s a generalization, but you get the employees you want too.

So invest in your staff. Invest in your leadership. A strong organization needs a strong staff. And sometimes it needs it before it needs the new wing.

Share your thoughts. And if you’re at the Museum Association of New York annual meeting this week, come talk to us or find us at AAM in Atlanta at the end of the month!

Joan Baldwin

Leadership in the Middle Space


This week I want to talk about something that’s been all over these pages, and in our book, Leadership Matters. And that’s the idea that we can lead from anywhere in the room.  I still believe it’s possible to act like a leader even if you’re not the CEO; to own your position, to go the extra mile. That is that type of behavior where you learn, where you get noticed, and where, potentially, you pull a team along with you. But here’s where I think it is not possible: it’s not possible to take over for an ineffective leader at least not at the department or all-staff level.

This week I had to attend a meeting about meetings. No, it was not a rehearsal for an episode of “The Office.” Sadly, it was real life. And guess what? We emerged from the meeting about meetings with another meeting scheduled to talk more about what we can do to make our meetings better. I could whine on about issues of leadership, but I think it’s more important to address the middle space, the moment when you’re not the leader, when you see the iceberg, but you aren’t the captain of the ship. There were more than a few of us in the room this week who had some vision, but frankly in an all-staff meeting, there’s only one person directing the conversation.

I had a boss once who used to tell me that people don’t change. Secretly, the little Pollyanna inside me always fought that statement. I wanted to believe everybody could change. Older and wiser now, I concede she’s probably right. So what can you do besides attend meetings about meetings? Quit? First, and let me say it pains me to say this, you have to control yourself. You have to get centered and do the best job you can. Part of being centered means finding a way to let off steam, whether it’s running or swimming or kick boxing. Find it and do it. Next, try to keep the leader on track. If she isn’t listening, you have to. Take good notes and spin them back to her. If you don’t understand, if her presentation is murky, ask her to clarify. Repeat it back to her. Third, if you’re going to throw yourself in front of the bulldozers make sure that it’s the appropriate moment, and the hill you want to die on. Fourth, you can always grab some other members of your team who feel like you do, and speak with your boss’s boss. Of course, the nuclear bomb is to go to HR, but in my experience, HR isn’t interested in bad bosses. HR is interested in bosses that are so heinous what they’re doing may result in a lawsuit.

So…if those are the choices is there really an opportunity to lead from the middle of the meeting? Maybe, but it will take way more energy than you ever thought you’d have to invest in a weekly meeting. Apart from taking care of yourself by making sure you’ve got a way to vent some energy, it means the only way to get control of an essentially absurd situation–the adrift meeting during which nothing happens–is by constantly asking questions and repeating the answers back to your CEO, department head or director. Is it enough? I’ll let you know. In the meantime, let us know how you feel about being in the middle space.

Leadership from the Ground Up

onward upward

This week my local historical society–full disclosure, I am a board member–spent part of its monthly meeting discussing the American Association of State and Local History’s (AASLH) Standards and Excellence Program or StEPS. Now in its second year in Connecticut, where it is supported by the Connecticut League of History Organizations and Connecticut Humanities, StEPs brings museum 101 to small organizations. The program takes two years and each organization admitted is also partnered with a mentor. Participating organizations are encouraged, prodded and coaxed to meet like organizations around the state to compare problems, projects, and goals. They attend workshops with guest speakers where they are encouraged to bring as many board members as they want for a modest $10 each. All good, right? Well, yes, except for the part about Governor Dannell Malloy zeroing the Connecticut Humanities budget a month ago, it’s better than good. It’s very good, except for–wait for it–you knew it was coming–the program’s governance piece.

One of the bolder statements Anne and I made in Leadership Matters was that if museums and historical organizations had invested as much over the last quarter century in leadership as they had in interpretation and collections management, the field would be in a different place. In fact, we feel so strongly about this that before writing Leadership Matters we wrote an online handbook called “What Comes First?” for individuals charged with starting museums or historical organizations. (It’s available through the Museum Association of New York.) So while we’re totally on board with StEPs, we wish the governance piece were more rigorous.

It’s possible for a volunteer board to emerge from the governance section of the StEPs program, having shed the traditional mission statement of protect, collect and interpret the history of wherever, and yet still not understand the arc of growth that strong organizations take from mission-driven, all-volunteer boards to boards whose goal is to hire a part or full-time director. To us there is a difference. It doesn’t make the former bad people, but it certainly separates the sheep from the goats. And in a subtle way, the organizations that are able to make the leap, have also intuited the idea that as non-profits we hold a public trust. It’s not about the board’s comfort level around the table; it’s not about the parts of local history they are interested in, it’s about their community however it is defined. And it’s about a quality and commitment to leadership–which, granted could be all-volunteer–that keeps the organization on a forward, financially stable trajectory, committed to something more than mediocrity.

Which is worse: A historic house with beautifully organized and cared for collections, but no visitors, or the same historic house filled with laughter, argument, lively discussion, and plenty of people? No, we are not suggesting that collections aren’t important. They are. For most organizations they are the catalysts that spawn ideas. But too many history organizations and their staffs are mired in process to the detriment of leadership. Their leaders manage but do not lead.

So what are we suggesting? Well, for the complete laundry list, see page 201 of Leadership Matters and our Leadership Revolution Agenda for History and Cultural Organizations. In the short term, of course we support more states following Connecticut’s model–not the Governor–but CLHO and CTHumanities–and participating in StEPs or programs like it, but we’d push everyone one step further and ask them to not stop at a new mission statement, but actually talk about where they as a group want to see their organization in one, three or five years. And to jot down the things they need to get there. And to partner with their local Rotary or Chamber of Commerce or bank. Approaching non-profit work as if it were a business isn’t bad. After all, if your “product” is happy people in the galleries, noisy, contented children getting back on the school bus and a growing membership, what’s not to like.

Joan Baldwin

If You Don’t Know Yourself, You Don’t Know Anything


Hello, again. After some lively discussion about Women+Museums, this week we return to questions of leadership. Recently, we’ve been talking a lot about self-awareness in anticipation of our trip to AAM in April. In Leadership Matters we identified four traits–authenticity, self-awareness, courage and vision– associated with the leaders we interviewed. Those were characteristics that floated to the surface from our interviews, not labels we pinned on our interviewees. But the more we think and talk and observe leadership, we believe self-awareness is the most important of the four. Why? Because if you don’t know yourself, you don’t know anything. Truly. It’s that important. You can create magical exhibits, read spreadsheets in your sleep, balance your budget, write a brilliant grant application, and be a friend to all your staff, but if you don’t know yourself, you’re in trouble.

Self-awareness is everywhere these days. It’s in the business literature; it’s on NPR; it’s in women’s magazines and the Harvard Business Review. Here’s what self-awareness isn’t: It’s not taking a personality test like Myers Briggs or the PAEI and identifying with one personality type or other. Knowing that you’re a “producer” or an “entrepreneur” doesn’t solve anything unless you know what to do with the information.

And completing a personality test doesn’t give you a free pass. Knowing you are a “champion” or an “innovator” doesn’t mean that you’ve fixed anything. Nor does it mean that once your colleagues know you’re “authoritarian” they’re going to buy into that. Yikes. They’re probably busy feeling proud of their diagnostic abilities. They knew you were bossy and self-centered and now the test proved it. If this scenario happens to you what do you do? Well, it’s likely you’re not all authoritarian. Find the other parts of you and work on them. Self-knowledge isn’t anything you finish. It simply provides the information that helps you understand how you as a leader work with others in your department, team, or museum.

Know that you aren’t one thing all the time. You’ll likely have two or more personality types that compete for air time in the you that is you. You may come to understand that you’re more creative–an idea factory some days–but follow through isn’t your strong suit. What does that tell you? Well, you could search for a position where your primary responsibility is to be an idea factory. Or you could be strategic about the people you team up with so that your skills complement theirs. The same goes if you, the mad creative type, are a leader. Knowing your primary and secondary strengths allows you to build a team that reinforces and complements each other. There is a sports analogy here, but I will leave it alone. The point is that good leaders are constantly aware of how they’re “playing” to those around them. There is a rhythm to the way they work: self-understanding, experimentation, reflection. That individual strategy works organizationally too.

So this week try this: after meetings, after one-on-ones, after speeches, reflect. Think about what worked and what didn’t. If you could wave the “do-over” wand, what would you change? Why? Then go forward and tweak. Adjust. Change. Try again. Being a leader isn’t an end point. It’s simply a different job title. Life is change. Good leaders are prepared for it by knowing themselves and being ready to adapt.

Joan Baldwin

Women+Museums: How About Women Helping Women or Are We Sometimes Our Own Worst Enemies?

language has power

Language is also a place of struggle. bell hooks, writer

It’s mid-March and time for a post about Women+Museums. First, a huge thank you to the over 400 of you who filled out either the short or long form of our survey. If we needed encouragement about whether gender in museums was a discussion waiting to happen, you answered. And the answer was a resounding yes! So, again, many, many thanks. Second, if you’re going to be at AAM in Atlanta, stay tuned. Anne and I are hoping to put together some impromptu focus groups so we can hear your thoughts in person.

If our surveys are an indicator, something is going on in museumland between the genders. And potentially between women as well.  Are we, as female leaders, being supportive and nurturing while simultaneously advocating for the women who work for and with us? Are we teaching each other to lead or are we competing with each other? There are no doubt some big time issues here. Granted, some women get to the top and lead without a whiff of bossiness or bitchiness. They are beloved by female and male staffers alike. Others not so much.

The business world is full of writing about gender and the workplace. We aren’t sure how those findings translate to the female-dominated land of museums. But even without the benefit of our 400 surveys, here’s some advice: It is possible to be kind AND firm. It is possible to embrace female-centric, relational characteristics like supporting others and team building, but still focus on strategic outcomes. That’s called good leadership, and in a perfect world, we don’t think leadership should be gender based. But we’re not in a perfect world.

While, thankfully, many of the most obvious gender grievances have been erased from the workplace, we would like to suggest that gender remains an issue in language and behavior. It’s subtle, yes, but it’s there. Think it isn’t? How many times have you seen men leave a room deep in conversation, while women pick up coffee cups and wipe down tables? How often is a leadership team’s conversation dominated by men, and yet tasks dominated by women? This is simply to say that change can’t happen unless you’re aware of what’s going on. And self-awareness and mindfulness are at the heart of good leadership.

If you aren’t leading a team, department or organization, but you report to a female leader, ask yourself how you feel about her. Are you cranky because secretly sometimes you feel she’s acting like a man and you don’t like that? Does the thought bubble over your head say “bitchy” when you know if she were a he, you might be thinking “authoritative”? In your heart of hearts do you wish she were a he because you believe men are natural decision makers? This is not to suggest that every situation with a female leader is contentious. It’s not. Or that employees with female leaders always question authority. They don’t. It’s simply to say that patterns of behavior and language can’t be broken without recognizing them first. It is easy to say, “I don’t mind,” about many of these small things, but it is the small behaviors that lay the foundations for larger workplace decisions. If you are seen as the list maker, the doer, the cleaner-upper, you won’t necessarily be invited to the big picture discussions. And, as someone interested in leadership,  we assume that’s where you want be. So watch for patterns. Break them with a smile. Be the self-aware leader not bound by gender who’s a good person. And be in touch.

Joan Baldwin


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