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

8 Comments on “Is Negotiating Not a Museum Thing”

  1. Sarah says:

    Thanks for raising these points! I think you’re absolutely right that we fall into the trap of assuming that non-profits can’t offer competitive salaries and other benefits. There is an underlying–and infuriating–assumption that people who work in museums love their work, and therefore are willing to work for less than people in less “fun” careers might. I’d also add that the proliferation of temporary and grant-funded positions discourages emerging professionals from negotiating salaries as they enter the field, setting a pattern for lower earnings across their careers. If you’re told that a funding agency has made only X available, you don’t feel like you can ask for more–after all, there are plenty more applicants who would love to accept that one-year position.

    • Theresa says:

      You read my mind Sarah and I am very glad this article is encouraging museum professionals to fight for their self worth by asking for various benefits. Like you mention there are several factors that discourage employees (and I would argue especially new professionals) to be able to successfully negotiate, despite the fact that they are very aware “why they matter” and do attempt to do so.

      Based on my anecdotal experience and my research and work on the NCPH New Professional Graduate Student and New Committee, I would say that the awareness of the importance of negotiation is not lost on many new professionals. Unfortunately the institution or agency as Sarah mentions, is often unwilling or unable to allow for any flexibility for various reasons, and saying no (as Tim mentions below, while possible later in a career) is not an option in if one really wants to start out in the field.

      On a personal note, as the article says in the end, if negotiations aren’t possible I very much agree it helps to identify exactly what positives will be a result of the position!
      In a contract position? Even a $1 an hour raise can be a mental victory. Even asking and being turned down for new or different benefits is a chance to communicate your worth to the institution and allow them to understand your priorities. They will never know what you want, unless you ask for it.

  2. Tim Heimerle says:


    Thanks for this. It is so true, on so many counts.

    Long ago, one of my mentors taught me an axiom that has stayed with me ever since: “The only person responsible for your career is you. The only person that is responsible for your self-worth as an employee and professional is you.”

    Ever since then, I never accept the first offer. Ever. Even if it means losing the job I always wanted. Your prospective employer needs to understand that you value yourself, and what you bring to the table. And you can never get those dollars back.

    And I totally agree, it’s not all about money and benefits, though it should be. I’ve negotiated for more time off, or different working hours/flexible schedule, and others things that mean more to me now than just raw dollars.

    Well said, and a good reminder to us all.

  3. joan says:

    Forever and ever AMEN!

    I especially appreciated this excerpt: “…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?” Emphasis on the *we*, added. I am all for taking accountability; rather than jumping to the conclusion that the problem is the institution and that the answer will be “no”, I encourage everyone to ask themselves “but did I ask?”. If that answer is “no”, then we must back up, re-strategize and formulate a plan to *intelligently* ask for what we deserve.

    I recently found out that I was making an amount SIGNIFICANTLY lower than my direct colleagues. I was so angry (and hurt, and embarrassed, the list goes on…) that I had to take a day off and really think about what I wanted. I consulted trusted peers and mentors, as well as the text: Ask For It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want by Linda Babcock, Sara Laschever. From there I formulated a plan, which consisted of the following: my worth as depicted through metrics and accomplishments, what I wanted which was based on commensurate salaries (not only in the field but within the locality), what I was willing to risk (for me, that was quitting and finding another job) and how long I would wait for said raise. I literally made myself sick over the situation but when meeting with my supervisor and calmly talking it through, I was met, to my surprise, with no push back. Said supervisor agreed and apologized for not being more aware of what was going on. My raise (17.5%) was effective within the next pay cycle.

    What did I learn? A LOT. Here are the biggies:
    1. I will never go into another job so excited for the job that I forget to negotiate for what I deserve. Where else in my life do I allow myself to be that desperate? NO WHERE. If they want me bad enough, they can pay my worth.
    2. Next, I learned that the answer received might actually be good news; I made myself so sick over the situation by focusing mostly on my hurt, anger and the assumption that the answer would be bad. Not to say that anger didn’t fuel my plan and tenacity but next time I will work on thinking about both sides of the coin and not just assuming it will be ‘NO’.
    3. I also learned that action (or lack thereof) taken by my institution wasn’t exactly intentional; my boss wasn’t malicious in my lack of pay, they were more or less clueless–all the hats worn by our bosses can cloud their vision re: what their employees’ needs are. (Also, let’s be honest, they were happy to pay sale price for a service when the service provider (ME) was willing to do so at a reduced price–up until that point, I wasn’t asking for more money, so why should they give it?).

    So, in less words? WE HAVE TO ASK! Have a plan, know our worth, be prepared for the worst and finally just ASK.

  4. I think the lack of negotiation among museum staff is the rarity of positions combined with a high investment in training just to be eligible, and those pressing debts that need to be repaid. By ignoring a living wage for junior staff, administrators push turnover/rehiring/retraining costs onto mid-level staff, distributing various kinds of misery.

  5. […] favorite posts were: “Can Museum Women Have It All?” followed by “Is Negotiating Not a Museum Thing?” and “Ambition in the Museum Workplace.” Together they netted a whopping 4, 651 readers. […]

  6. […] we need to talk, is a great looking, challenging but loving poem, from technologist Chad Weinard. Is negotiating not a museum thing? intrigues because I think the collegiate culture of cultural heritage sometimes obfuscates plain […]

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