Why Are Soft Skills Soft?Posted: June 17, 2015
It’s mid-June and it’s time to talk Women+Museums again. As many of you know, Anne Ackerson and I are writing a new book to be published by Left Coast Press in 2016. You can read more about the project by here. Because of that project, we’ve dedicated one post a month to all of you–men and women alike–who consider yourselves feminists and/or want to think, read or learn more about gender and the museum workplace. If you’re bristling at the use of the word feminist, the point of this post is to talk a little about gender and language.
Perhaps you don’t think you’re a feminist. Perhaps it conjures up visions of angry, shouting women who left home without shaving their armpits? Maybe not a picture we in the museum world want to align ourselves with? And yet, ponder this: As background for Women+Museums I’ve been reading a great deal and one writer who strikes a cord is Roxanne Gay, author of a collection of essays called Bad Feminist. In an article in The Guardian which you can find here, Gay quotes Kathy Bail’s succinct definition of feminists as women who don’t want to be treated like crap. Actually Bail and Gay use a slightly more descriptive word, but you get the idea, maybe meaning that being a feminist in 2015 doesn’t have a lot to do with the way you dress or whether you wear make-up , but whether you are ready to stand up for those who aren’t treated equitably. Like those who make 77 cents to the male dollar. See how much baggage eight letters can carry?
Understanding some of the facets of the word feminist brings me to the actual point of this post and that’s another freighted word:”soft.” As in soft skills. Soft skills, in case you let your Harvard Business Review subscription lapse, are the ones long associated with women. These are skills like collaboration, the ability to read social cues, empathy, inclusion and intuition. They are often possessed by women and were once marginalized–think Mad Men’s Joan Harris and Peggy Olsen–but somehow the pendulum swung the other way and those soft skills are now the stuff of the new leadership even though they come with the girly label “soft.”
Here’s what we know about those “soft” skills. Once upon a time companies, and museums too, were interested in hard skills. At the leadership level, they wanted people with a demonstrated understanding of content who could also manage money. Typical leaders were sometimes double-degreed former curators with a gift for reading spreadsheets. Leaders learned content in graduate school and depending on what decade of the 20th century we’re talking about, sometimes learned the money piece as well. Hard skills stay the same from job to job. If your specialty is the Civil War, you can go to a number of Civil War museums and put your knowledge to use. Of course, your board might discover that while your knowledge is encyclopedic and your money management skills fantastic, that your interpersonal skills are dismal. And that’s where the “soft” skills come in.
They are, in fact, the womanly skills of interpersonal relations. And with the flattening of hierarchies, they are increasingly important. Whether we like the girliness of the word “soft” or not, women utilize them far oftener than men. People in business started to notice this a while ago. In a 2010 McKinsey Global Study the company reported that 72-percent of executives believe that there’s a direct connection between a business’ gender diversity and its financial success. And among Fortune 500 companies those who promote women to executive positions have a 69-percent higher return than those who do not.
So….I have a two-fold question for all of you out there in museum land: First, knowing this, why do the oligarchs who select men as CEOs and Presidents for museums with budgets over $10 million, and, in a profession that is 45-percent female, why are we women not better at valuing the soft skills we bring to the table? Last, let’s stop calling them “soft.” Let’s call them core leadership skills because that’s what they are. Let us know your thoughts about language, about the workplace, and about gender.