Women and Museums


Since March is Women’s History month, we wanted to focus this week on women, leadership, and museums, and specifically women in history museums. One thing we know is that the history and cultural heritage museum field is increasingly female dominated. That might be a good thing, but perhaps not entirely. Those of you who share the XX chromosome should pause and reflect on the fact that April 8 is the day when your wages catch up to your male colleagues.  In a recent press release about pay inequity, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) pointed out that while young women are paid 90 percent of what young men are paid, when those same women reach age 35 the wage gap widens. “Employers should lead on this issue. The pay gap hurts families and costs a typical woman at least $400,000 over the course of her career,” said AAUW Executive Director and CEO Linda D. Hallman, CAE. “While some CEOs have been vocal in their commitment to paying workers fairly, American women can’t wait for incremental change. AAUW urges companies to conduct salary audits proactively to monitor and address gender pay differences. It’s just good business.”

There is a sad truth in the history museum world. We’ve heard it often enough that we listed it in Leadership Matters as one of our field’s top 10 myths. Here it is: “Compensation is secondary because the work is its own reward.” We remarked that while the work CAN be tremendously rewarding, you still pay the same amount for gas that Warren Buffet pays. So if you’re a woman, negotiate. Know what salaries are for your area for comparable jobs–other museums, teachers, librarians. If you don’t want to quit and your organization can’t or won’t compensate you appropriately, see if you can negotiate for time or leadership training. Just don’t roll over and accept what’s offered when what’s offered isn’t fair.

And if you need courage before your annual review, you may want to read the “The Gender Gap in Art Museum Directorships,” released by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) at the beginning of March. The report was bookended by features in both The New York Times and the Washington Post, profiling women directors of some of New York’s and Washington’s leading museums. (And if you’re not a subscriber to Take 5, a little jewel of an Internet newsletter created by my co-author Anne Ackerson and four pals, you should read their recent “Women Are the Architects of Society” post where these articles are mentioned.)

Interestingly, there are more female museum leaders in the greater Washington,D.C. area than in New York City. And while it is heartening to read these women’s profiles, here are two distressing thoughts: First, the vast majority lead art not history museums. Second, according to the AAMD report, no matter how exalted these women’s positions, they are still making .79 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earn.

What’s even more distressing is where are history museums in all of this? Because if we believe AAMD’s report, here’s another irony: gender discrepancies apparently grow with budget size, meaning that museums with overwhelmingly huge budgets, specifically those with annual operating budgets of $20 to $100 million, have fewer female CEO’s. While that may be irritating if you’re a female PhD in art history with an MBA to boot and a yearning to run a really big art museum, there are no history museums with budgets that big. In fact, a Google search of “Biggest” or “Best” museums in the United states produces a list of art museums along with New York City’s Museum of Natural History and Washington’s Holocaust Museum. But this isn’t a rant about how history museums consistently miss getting a place at the table, it’s a discussion about women and their leadership roles in the country’s history museums and cultural heritage organizations. And it’s meant to pose some questions about what happens when a field becomes female-dominated which is exactly what has happened on the history side of the aisle. So…if you’re not rattled enough, here’s another disturbing little fact courtesy of Forbes. In 2012 The New York Times released a report that showed that for the first time many men were entering fields traditionally dominated by women. The examples The Times gave were teaching and nursing, but it could just as easily have been museum leadership. Apparently some men view these professions as family friendly–thus the shift. But here’s the bad news. Women apparently climb the ladder in these fields. Men? Not so much. They zoom on what Forbes termed a glass escalator that whisks them to the top, past their female colleagues, straight to management. The lesson: if you are female the leadership track may not be a straight shot even in a field where 63-percent of all professional and senior positions are held by women.

So what’s the good news? One of the characteristics of the leaders we profiled in Leadership Matters was self-awareness. Whether you are a man or a women, if you’re on the leadership track, you need to be self-aware. You need to know how salaries at your institution stack up. If you’re female, you need to make sure you are being compensated fairly. Tell your department head, your director, your board, why you matter. And mean it. Incremental change comes when each of us makes individual choices. What have you done lately to level the gender playing field?

3 Comments on “Women and Museums”

  1. CP says:

    When I left a former position as executive director of a small southern historical society about 10 years ago, they paid my (male) replacement a higher salary, openly stating that he was the “head of a household” and therefore needed it more than I did. I was shocked at the time, but it was a wake up call to the reality that things are not yet equal in American life.

  2. […] for Leadership Matters, and we’re not completely sure why, was our March 25 missive titled “Women & Museums”, which drew a record number of readers to this blog. Like a pebble in your shoe, there seem to be […]

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