Ambition in the Museum WorkplacePosted: November 23, 2015
“I want everybody to close their eyes and think of a dirty word, like a really dirty word. Now open your eyes. Was any of your words ambition? I didn’t think so. See, I just kind of started wondering why female ambition is a trait that people are so afraid of. Why do people have prejudiced opinions about people who accomplish things? Why is that perceived as a negative?”
Reese Witherspoon @ the Glamour Women of the Year Awards, November 9, 2015
This month put me in contact with a number of young museum and non-profit folk looking to advance in their careers. All of them are women–not a surprise given that Anne Ackerson and I are focused on our manuscript for Women|Museums to be published by Left Coast Press next year. At the same time, we constantly read pieces primarily written for the for-profit world about job getting and job leaving. In short, about ambition.
Here’s what we know about ambition in the for-profit world. Everybody has it to begin with, men and women. Everybody wants to be the best, get the office with the windows and the big salary. Then something weird happens. According to a 2015 survey by Bain and Company women’s ambitions drop by a whopping 60 percent. Before you jump to the conclusion that’s the result of the mommy track, it’s not. The results were the same for women who were married, not married, parents, not parents. Worse, while women’s confidence plummets, men’s does not. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out what happens next. Women’s confidence and aspirations, which begin higher than men’s, drops so that by the time they are senior leaders their confidence that they can reach the top spot is 29 percent versus men’s which is 60 percent. If you want to read more about this go here: Bain Study.
So we know what happens in business, but because of the museum world’s abysmal data keeping and seeming inability to turn a lens on itself as a workplace, we have no way of knowing if it’s true in museums. Then, if you add the fact that museums aren’t one world, but many, the narrative becomes more complex. Art museums that draw staff from the academy have a different culture than history, science or children’s museums although we know from AAMD’s 2014 study that women’s ambitions are thwarted in the art world as they move up the leadership ladder. Anecdotally, that also appears to be true in the history museum world even though its population is almost evenly split between men and women.
Here is what we’ve noticed: Preparation for strategic thinking about one’s career is often absent or downplayed at the graduate and early career level; getting the first job seems to be an end in itself; too many spend too little time strategizing about what taking and staying in a given position means for the long haul; choices often seem born out of enthusiasm–a sense of I’m so glad to be here–rather than a step toward something bigger and what bigger means; and there is an unspoken agenda, that leaving a position may hurt the organization and its needs come before an individual’s do. Most jarring of all–sometimes it feels as if we, as a field, are kind of proud of the idea that we’re non-profits so being openly ambitious, especially openly ambitious young women, isn’t what we do.
Of course that might be true. Unlike the business world, museums offer median salaries somewhere around $45,000. There are few perquisites and leadership positions can be demanding. Moving up the ladder may mean literally moving which may be easier for some than others
So…as leaders what’s our role? Are you a mentor at work and outside work? Do you push staff to chart a course for themselves? Are they comfortable talking with you about career next steps? Are you comfortable listening? Conversely, as a leader do YOU have a mentor or mentors? Do you talk career strategies with them?
This week as we gather with family and friends, let’s make a pact to be more intentional about museums as workplaces. Let’s do our best to encourage upward mobility, salary negotiation and career strategizing. The field will be better for it. And as always, let us know your thoughts on ambition and charting career choices.