Ambition in the Museum Workplace

Finish Line


“I want everybody to close their eyes and think of a dirty word, like a really dirty word. Now open your eyes. Was any of your words ambition? I didn’t think so. See, I just kind of started wondering why female ambition is a trait that people are so afraid of. Why do people have prejudiced opinions about people who accomplish things? Why is that perceived as a negative?”

Reese Witherspoon @ the Glamour Women of the Year Awards, November 9, 2015

This month put me in contact with a number of young museum and non-profit folk looking to advance in their careers. All of them are women–not a surprise given that Anne Ackerson and I are focused on our manuscript for Women|Museums to be published by Left Coast Press next year. At the same time, we constantly read pieces primarily written for the for-profit world about job getting and job leaving. In short, about ambition.

Here’s what we know about ambition in the for-profit world. Everybody has it to begin with, men and women. Everybody wants to be the best, get the office with the windows and the big salary. Then something weird happens. According to a 2015 survey by Bain and Company women’s ambitions drop by a whopping 60 percent. Before you jump to the conclusion that’s the result of the mommy track, it’s not. The results were the same for women who were married, not married, parents, not parents. Worse, while women’s confidence plummets, men’s does not. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out what happens next. Women’s confidence and aspirations, which begin higher than men’s, drops so that by the time they are senior leaders their confidence that they can reach the top spot is 29 percent versus men’s which is 60 percent. If you want to read more about this go here: Bain Study.

So we know what happens in business, but because of the museum world’s abysmal data keeping and seeming inability to turn a lens on itself as a workplace, we have no way of knowing if it’s true in museums. Then, if you add the fact that museums aren’t one world, but many, the narrative becomes more complex. Art museums that draw staff from the academy have a different culture than history, science or children’s museums although we know from AAMD’s 2014 study that women’s ambitions are thwarted in the art world as they move up the leadership ladder. Anecdotally, that also appears to be true in the history museum world even though its population is almost evenly split between men and women.

Here is what we’ve noticed: Preparation for strategic thinking about one’s career is often absent or downplayed at the graduate and early career level; getting the first job seems to be an end in itself; too many spend too little time strategizing about what taking and staying in a given position means for the long haul; choices often seem born out of enthusiasm–a sense of I’m so glad to be here–rather than a step toward something bigger and what bigger means; and there is an unspoken agenda, that leaving a position may hurt the organization and its needs come before an individual’s do.  Most jarring of all–sometimes it feels as if we, as a field, are kind of proud of the idea that we’re non-profits so being openly ambitious, especially openly ambitious young women, isn’t what we do.

Of course that might be true. Unlike the business world, museums offer median salaries somewhere around $45,000. There are few perquisites and leadership positions can be demanding. Moving up the ladder may mean literally moving which may be easier for some than others

So…as leaders what’s our role? Are you a mentor at work and outside work? Do you push staff to chart a course for themselves? Are they comfortable talking with you about career next steps? Are you comfortable listening? Conversely, as a leader do YOU have a mentor or mentors? Do you talk career strategies with them?

This week as we gather with family and friends, let’s make a pact to be more intentional about museums as workplaces. Let’s do our best to encourage upward mobility, salary negotiation and career strategizing. The field will be better for it. And as always, let us know your thoughts on ambition and charting career choices.

Joan Baldwin


Museums and Work/Life Balance in a Digital World…plus a P.S. for Paris in Honor of Elaine Heumann Gurian

work life balance

As you know, Anne and I spent two days in Washington, D.C. at the Intercom meeting. One of the many conversations we participated in had to do with work/life balance. Actually, the conversation started out as a discussion of museum directors who believe long days are appropriate, and mutated into what leaders, department heads and directors expect from their staff in terms of time. One example offered was a museum leader who isn’t happy if her staff isn’t working at least a 12-hour day. Apparently she’s not a fan of staff who go home at what might be considered a “normal” hour.

We’ve heard this before, not constantly, but enough that it’s concerning. In fact, it came up in the discussion of family issues in this blog a few weeks ago, when women without children commented that being childless meant they were often the ones expected to stay late while people with children left to relieve the nanny or watch a soccer game no questions asked.

My question is why? Is there really a need for anyone, regardless of their family situtation, to stay four hours longer than the normal workday on a regular basis? And, when you combine a long work day with the fact that many employers expect exempt staff to respond to emails regardless of the time of day, then the idea of work/life balance becomes a bit ridiculous. Can you ever give yourself permission to shut work off? Do you?

Are you a leader who discusses how frequently you want staff to respond to email? Within an hour? In minutes? Within a week? And more importantly, what written or verbal expectations do you have regarding email and exempt staff? Are there unspoken expectations that even if they’re told not to respond to emails after business hours, those who do are the favored few, while those who don’t, aren’t?

To complicate matters, the digitization of everything blurs all the lines between work and private life. After all, you can sit in a staff meeting and read a text from your child as easily as one from a colleague. And while it’s great to hear that your daughter passed her math test or your son doesn’t have Lyme disease, the burden is on everyone to make sure that despite the blurred lines, that work gets done. Last, it’s worth acknowledging that it’s likely our own attitudes are shaped by the culture of immediacy that comes with owning an iPhone. Everything is heightened not just the world of work.

Let us know how you and your staff manage the work/life balance thing–especially when it comes to digital communications.

Joan Baldwin

P.S. It’s hard to write or talk about anything this weekend without the horrific happenings in Paris intruding. I hope all of you who are museum leaders will channel your inner Elaine Heumann Gurian this week and think about how your museum, site, organization can connect and deal/cope/unpack what’s happened. Is it enough to acknowledge the terror in the world and offer up a quiet space? Are you using social media to reach your audience about Friday’s events? Last, are there stories in your collection or site that speak to issues of ambush, pain, and loss of control? I think Heumann Gurian would tell all of us that a sure way to be permanently sidelined is to not respond to the world’s events.

Happy Staffs Mean Happy Audiences


This week I was lucky enough to have a long phone conversation with Elaine Heumann Gurian. She describes herself as the Bernie Sanders of the museum world, meaning she’s been on the left of things for 45 years and never altered her course. If you’re not familiar with her work, you may want to visit her website.

Heumann Gurian is an advocate of the museum as the family dinner table–a place where we all have a seat, where all our voices are heard whether we’re sitting in the high chair, just home from college or the family’s eldest member. She doesn’t have much time for sites that speak as if they’re the oracle of all knowledge and then wonder why no one listens. Actually, that’s not true. She has a lot of time for them if they’re interested in experimenting and changing the way they do things.

Heumann Gurian’s contention that museums need to respect their audiences extends “backstage” to the world of museum personnel as well. She believes that if your staff is happy your audience will forgive you almost anything. Think about that. Think about the damage disgruntled, cranky staff can do. Ponder a leader’s responsibility to create an atmosphere of happiness. What goes into that equation? You’re not their shrink and you are not responsible for the fact that they had a bad break-up, their cat died or insurance failed to pay for their expensive periodontal work. You are responsible for creating an atmosphere of authenticity, transparency and creativity where staff can do the best work possible. And part of being transparent is acknowledging that family–in the largest sense–whether it’s a sick toddler, a partner who had out-patient surgery or an aging parent affects staff engagement. Creating an atmosphere where staff don’t feel judged about taking care and taking time reaps its own rewards.

Here at Leadership Matters we struggle–especially in the wake of our work on gender–with museums who are outwardly all about equity. Their press offices never issue pictures without the appropriate racial, ethnic and gender balance; their exhibits are carefully calibrated to reflect community. Yet backstage, life is often different. I’ll leave you with a quote from Heumann Gurian:

The reality is that most museum staffs don’t really believe in egalitarianism either.  One finds, in the endless meeting culture, that once a decision seems to be made in the meeting, staff corner each other in hallways (often directly after the meeting is adjourned) to relitigate the issue based on the power and persistence of the individuals involved in order to reach decisions, or overturn previously made ones.

Think about it, and work to make change happen.

Joan Baldwin

Image above:  Staff of the Eric Carle Museum gather in front of Carle’s murals in celebration of the artist’s birthday.

Intercom 2015: What We Heard; What We Talked About

Elaine Gurian

Anne and I returned Friday from a quick trip to Intercom 2015 in Washington, D.C. The three-day conference of global museum leaders, which began Wednesday evening, was Intercom’s first meeting in the United States. Unlike many conferences this one was small enough (140+ attendees from about 20 countries) to meet in museums around the city. Centered around three themes: The Essential MuseumThe Enduring Organization, and The Sustainable Leader, the conference drew a number of thoughtful folk and unleashed some deep conversations. Our panel, which included our colleague Marsha Semmel, was titled The Sustainable 21st-Century Leader. Marsha talked about VUCA leadership (here’s a good link for what VUCA is all about) and we gave a broad overview of some of the findings from our book. At some point in the future, we believe Intercom will post the conference PowerPoints if you are interested.

Below is a collection of random thoughts, comments, quotes and websites from our 36-hour trip.

  • Elaine Gurian opened the meeting (that’s her picture up at the top).  She cautioned her audience that while a portion of the museum-going public wants the same iconic museum it has always known, many institutions are expanding programs and collections access to include traditionally disenfranchised audiences–moving, as she put it, from formal temples to less formal gathering places.
  • Gurian reminded us that museums’ primary function is idealogical, and that by their very nature they often reinforce belonging or exclusion. For her, the essential museum of the future looks more like a drop-in service space and less like an occasional day-out museum. She said, “”All public institutions have a role in creating peaceful environments for strangers and thus bringing diverse audiences together.” And also asked, “Have you wondered about the diversity of the library and why libraries are more democratic than museums?”
  •  Gurian believes we need to change our basic mindset, understand each visitor’s questions, and create spaces that are in service to the visitor rather than the gallery. Her mantra: Institutions that are welcoming, porous, accepting.
  • From Laura Schiavo’s panel on Next, Not Best: Workshop on Sustainable Practices we heard from Tony Butler, executive director of the Derby Museums. What an alluring concept to engage community with museum-making and, in doing so, making meaning of the world.  We recommend you visit their website, which is equally alluring and fun.
  • Also part of that panel was Gretchen Jennings, creator of the blog The Empathetic Museum, who said that museums must undergo an inner transformation; and that museums must have a civic vision.
  • And from the Dirty Money session, Bob Janes’ quote via video, “that museums are sleepwalking into the future.”
  • Last, for everyone who thinks New York City is the apex of all things museum, think again. There is a lot going on in the nation’s capital.

What We’re Reading or Wish We Were Reading


Anne and I are away this week speaking at the Intercom: Leadership for a Sustainable Museum conference. We’re presenting with Marsha Semmel, who wrote the foreword to Leadership Matters, and David Young, the ED of Cliveden in Philadelphia and one of the book’s interviewees. We’ll report on the conference when we return.

In the meantime, here is a quirky list of what we’re reading, watching or listening to, in addition to a list of things we haven’t quite gotten to yet, but we will. Enjoy. And share your list please!

Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson

What We’ve Read or We’re Reading:

Bad Feminist, Roxanne Gay (Harper Perennial, 2014)

We Should All Be Feminists, Chiamanda Ngozi Adiche (Anchor Books, 2014)

“Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” Anne-Marie Slaughter, The Atlantic, July/August, 2012.

“What’s Holding Women Back in the Workplace?” Nikki Waller and Joann S. Lublin, September 30, 2015

What Works for Women at Work, Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey (NYU Press, 2014)

“Boys Don’t Cry..But Should CEOs?” Roger Jones, October 24, 2015

The Danger of a Single Story Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ted Talks, July 2009

What’s On the To-Read List:

Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. Frank Vagnone and Deborah Ryan (Left Coast, 2015)

“Centered Leadership:  How Talented Women Thrive,” Joanna Barsh, Susie Cranston, and Rebecca A. Craske, McKinsey Quarterly, September 2008.

“The Bamboo Project,” Michele Martin’s career advice blog that’s chock full of great insights and creative solutions to divining and defining work you love.

Are Museums Good at the Cross-Generation Thing?

workplace wordle

In a field where new graduate programs open yearly, where internships–too few of them offering a living wage– abound, you would think MuseumLand would be good at the cross generational thing. After all, how many of you work in departments where baby boomers and Gen-Xers lead cross-generational teams? Much has been written about this topic in the for-profit and non-profit worlds. Writers–Anne and I are among them– have defined generational characteristics to help us all understand one another. Some of it may have even done some good. But here’s what I want to talk about today: How we, and by ‘we’ I mean all of us born before 1980, treat staff who are younger than we are.

I am inspired by many of the young women we’ve met in the course of completing our Women+Museums manuscript. They are smart, engaged, and engaging, and yet too frequently they seem to run into the buzz-saw of fogeyism and ‘mansplaining’ that’s the verbal equivalent of being doused with ice water. Since I am a baby boomer, can I suggest we stop doing it?

In the survey and focus groups we did for Women+Museums we heard stories from a number of young women about life as the youngest employee. In many ways it echoes those feelings of returning home to a family gathering. Regardless of what has happened to you, whether you summited Mount McKinley, ran a successful Kickstarter campaign or spent three years in the Peace Corps, you’re still the youngest person at the table. And we have all been that person.

How many of you have watched while a colleague re-states what a young staff member has just said? Perhaps their motivations were good–they thought the explanation offered was poorly phrased and wanted colleagues to understand–or perhaps they’re just swiping an idea and re-phrasing, a boomer variation of traditional ‘mansplaining’. One of our survey respondents called it the “Ma Hen” syndrome, suggesting that “alpha females often destroy the confidence of women around them,” while another remarked on the phrase “Because we’ve always done it that way,” as the response to any new idea. One of our interviewees recalled being at a professional meeting when a man remarked, “Who’s this smart young girl?” while another remembers being frozen in place when an older, male visitor asked her director if she was “legal”. Admittedly, every issue has its horror stories, but this one shouldn’t be hard to correct.

If you’re a museum leader, we hope you’re hiring the very best of the youngest generation. We assume that, like all hires, you see something–a spark, talent, a hunger–that you know will benefit your organization. We hope that’s something you convey to current staff when new hires are announced. And we hope that in your organization interns and freshly-minted graduates are respected for more than their facility with IT and social media, something that’s become a sort of personnel trope for the millennial generation. And frankly, if that’s the only compliment you can offer about someone born after 1980, you need to get to know them better.

Everyone covets respect, especially at work. In the last several weeks two young women I know have been mansplained in a way that made one feel as if she were mentally challenged, while the other was verbally patted on the head as if she were a tiny dog. The tone of both conversations was a kind of mental sigh that said, well, you’ll get it when that frontal lobe development finally happens. Both are kick-ass people with a lot to bring to the table. Not that they don’t have stuff to learn. Not that they don’t need mentors. They do. We all do. But isn’t it easy to be a mentor and a mentee if there is mutual respect on both sides?
So here’s to intergenerational harmony at work. We all have a lot to teach and learn so let’s leave our snarkiness in the car.

Joan Baldwin

P.S. And thank you to all of you who helped break a record this week–over 2,000 views!

Is Negotiating Not a Museum Thing

I am worth it

OK, so I admit it: Some Thursdays I find myself watching Gray’s Anatomy. I know, I know. Try not to judge. But this week one of the show’s 8-million sub-plots had to do with Meredith Gray failing to negotiate the salary for her new position. When her boss is called out for not giving Meredith an equitable raise, she responds by saying she’s taught her everything she can and now it’s the moment for Meredith to rise and ask for what she needs. Don’t worry, Meredith eventually asks for and receives the raise that’s due her. A little lame when we’re talking about well-paid surgeons, but the point remains. How many of the country’s 340,000 or so museum employees failed to negotiate when they were offered a job? Even if we leave aside the group that stepped into federal, state or municipal positions where salary bands are more rigid or in some positions unionized, we believe too many simply (and joyfully) accepted their new job. And if we believe the field’s statistics, 45-percent of those saying yes–“Hire me!”–are women. To be clear, a new job should make you joyful and happier still if–like Meredith– you negotiated.

We’ve run up against this scenario anecdotally, and in interviews and focus groups. Last May at AAM one of our colleagues made a job offer over the phone. The woman accepted, but didn’t negotiate. The person offering the position was surprised, but as director needed to watch the bottom line, and reported that if the new hire wasn’t complaining, there was no reason to offer more money.

And negotiation isn’t always about salary and benefits. One of our Leadership Matters interviewees referenced her failure to negotiate her first job offer. This wasn’t an issue of salary but of the job description. Rebecca Slaughter took a curator’s position at a Connecticut museum. When she arrived, she found her position also included being the curator of exhibitions, technology support and registrar. She burned out after 12 months. Reflecting on the experience in her Leadership Matters interview, she said, “What can I say? I was young and dumb, but if I hadn’t been so excited about taking a job, I might have asked some more pointed questions.”

Before we started writing Women+Museums I think I would have told you that failing to negotiate was a gender thing. After all there are piles of books and blogs about how women either don’t negotiate or do it so badly they might as well have stayed silent. And maybe all those writers are onto something, but I also wonder if there isn’t something about museums, their non-profit status, the place they hold in our hearts, that makes us almost feel sorry for them in a way that we wouldn’t were we interviewing at a for-profit business? Do we emerge from graduate school in some masochistic cloud and allow ourselves to work for less because “after all it’s a non-profit?” Is there something about a culture of I’m-in-it-because-I-love-it, particularly at smaller museums, that smacks of volunteerism rather than a career?

Not every museum has great visitation and a fabulous endowment, but by permitting a culture of poor or low pay, either because boards allow it or new hires don’t demand change, haven’t we created a culture that values buildings and collections more than people? If an institution renovates or builds while its staff is still receiving sub-standard wages, doesn’t that send a message? If you’re working 50-60 hours some weeks without complaint (except for the circles under your eyes and the fact that you haven’t eaten a meal with your partner in weeks) what should a board member think except that she’s likely getting better value for money out of you than from the employees at her own business? I am not saying that hard work isn’t a good thing. It is. And I’m not saying that boards don’t value their staffs. I’m sure many do. But investing in human capital although it isn’t as sexy as a building renovation often yields great results. To use a sports metaphor, do you build the new stadium or invest in the players? How many of you who are in leadership positions have felt the urge to tell your board, whoa, let’s raise salaries before we add that new wing?

And if you’re an employee, when was the last time you thought about your own self-worth? You have value, value that is measured in cold hard cash, but also in paid time off and other benefits. And work/life balance is not just the province of working parents. So unless your museum is curing cancer, learn to press the pause button. Go home. Visit your parents. Go back to your swim class. Rehearse with the gospel choir. And most importantly be prepared to have the critical conversation when you need something. Know what you need. Is it flex time? Is it 35 hours instead of 40? Is it working nine days out of every 10 so you can see your ailing parents? Or is it a raise so you can move closer to work? Figure out what will make life better and ask. And for goodness sake if you are a finalist for a new position, make sure you understand the cost of living for the area near your new job. Your salary can sound fabulous when measured against a community where rent and food is cheaper.

We have a colleague who recently made the jump from a small under-funded county historical society to a larger, better funded museum with dynamic new leadership. She negotiated her offer. I’m not exaggerating when I say she started her new position on a high note. When you begin by knowing who you are and what you need, you set a template for staff interactions going forward.

So if you’re overworked and underpaid, sit down and figure out why you matter and then have a conversation with your direct report, your director or your board. And if your organization’s financial picture is too grim to ask for what you need, then make sure, very sure, you understand what you’re getting out of it. Is it convenience? Location? Other benefits? Is it a variation on a paid internship that provides experience you need? Do you see yourself as an organizational savior? Is that even possible? Understanding “the why” helps limit those days when work seems soul-crushing. And let us hear from you.

Joan H. Baldwin


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