What’s A Museum Board Got to Do With It?

Painting of woman

Last week a reader asked us whether board behavior might contribute to the museum field becoming a pink collar career. For those of you who missed our missive–we questioned whether the museum field should address the fact that it’s almost at gender parity–according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics–and plan and talk about that. And to respond to our reader who asked such an important question: yes, yes, yes! While we wish the museum field’s principal service organizations were more aggressive in their approach to gender, that doesn’t mean we’ve let boards off the hook.

Boards are powerful. And it’s not necessarily the power you expect, meaning it’s not only about money and being power brokers. Certainly boards fill that role. They select the director and set an organizational tone and culture, but boards also exercise power by doing nothing. Inaction becomes action when boards allow gender issues to burble under the surface, either through pay inequity, a weak or absent personnel department, or a failure to conduct thoughtful discussion about gender in the workplace. This kind of inaction does all organizations a disservice.

In preparation for our book Women|Museums, we conducted a survey on gender in the museum workplace, resulting in more than 400 responses from both men and women.  Sadly, only 21-percent of our respondents indicated their boards considered gender equity within their own ranks, much less within their museums. Some respondents indicated that boards were more comfortable questioning issues of race than gender. Like workplace diversity, gender is often reduced to numbers. How many women or people of color are on staff? If the numbers seem right, discussion is frequently over.

We would argue that workplace gender issues are not solely about box ticking, and that the importance of gender equity and inclusivity on the board and in staff leadership has a lot, if not everything, to do with the value message it sends to museum employees and volunteers, as well as to visitors, program participants and funders. It is absolutely critical that boards create pathways to leadership for women at the governance level and to advocate for similar pathways for women at the staff level.

Does your organization talk about gender at the board or leadership level? If so, what action has it taken? Are you satisfied? Does your organization have a personnel statement? Has it ever made a statement about gender and leadership?

Share your thoughts.

Joan Baldwin


2 Comments on “What’s A Museum Board Got to Do With It?”

  1. Polina Smutko says:

    Why is this discussion and so many others like it so dismissive of true diversity and limit itself to the gender binary?

    • Polina–
      Your point is well taken, but there are two reasons the question was phrased the way it was: one, our book, and thus our research is limited. It is focused on women not on diversity, not on LGBQT. Second, if a career field can’t address the issues of the gender bianary, how can it possibly cope with anything else? I realize that’s cold comfort, but I hope it explains where we’re coming from.

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