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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