Is It Different for Women in Museums?

tour guide

Suddenly it’s February already.  It’s still snowing, and the sky is still grey so maybe that ridiculous rodent was correct and there is a lot more winter to come.

Last month we promised that we’d write monthly updates on our book project Women+Museums. So one month in, with an outline drafted, a set of focus groups under our belt, a survey almost ready to launch, it’s time to talk about Women+Museums again. We should start by thanking all of you who’ve found us here or through the AASLH and AAM discussion groups on Linkedin and shared thoughtful comments, questions, and suggestions as this project gets underway.

Next we have some questions, but before that we’d like to share a story. In January we conducted two simultaneous focus groups in Connecticut for about 30 women ranging in age from 22 to early 70s, all of whom work at history or cultural heritage organizations. One of the groups also included one warm, intelligent man who works for the State of Connecticut. That’s important to the story because afterwards he buttonholed us to ask whether some of the anger and stories were a) a little overwrought and b) things of the past. Our response was to tell him a story from the other focus group where a visitor to a museum director’s office had managed to insult a young female intern’s gender and race in two sentences. The incident took place in 2014. Our listener looked horrified. We suggested that type of speech was not tolerated in his work place. At a minimum, anyone making antagonistic remarks about someone’s gender or race in a state office might expect to be written up, and continued behavior like that might result in firing. In the end he agreed that his workplace, in requiring a code of behavior, protects its employees from the worst of gender and in this case racial discrimination. But what about the thousands of small history and cultural heritage sites throughout the United States? Is their treatment of female employees dependent on the actions of the best of their board members?  In 2015 is gender discrimination in museums any worse than in their non-profit cousins? How many of your organizations have personnel policies or HR committees on your boards? If you’re a graduate student reading this, do you know what questions can and can’t be asked at an interview?

These are some of the questions we’re trying to tease out of a field that’s often acted as if leadership were some kind of lucky happenstance like good weather or, in another scenario, that “good” leaders were good fund raisers, relieving a board of some of its responsibilities. We are not interested in a them vs. us scenario. We’ve had great female bosses and board members and we’ve had dismal ones. But just as we want this field to treasure leadership the same way it treasures beautiful storage facilities or participatory programming, we also want to encourage equitable leadership between men and women and where success is not gender based.

As always, share your thoughts.

Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson


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