And Once Again, It Comes Back to Leadership


Last week we put a question out on the Museum-L listserv. We asked how not having children affected people’s lives as museum workers. We’re interested in this subject because of our book project Women|Museums to be published by Routledge in 2016. We were inundated with responses. Once again, it felt as though we’d touched a third rail in the world of museum personnel.

We heard from more than 50 women in 36 hours, all with stories to tell. And we are eager to listen. But I am going to go out on a limb here and say it is likely these stories–as painful as I know some of them will be–aren’t so much about fertility or having children or not having children. They are about the poor job that many museums, historic houses and heritage organizations do in managing personnel and workplace equity. I would suggest that if our field were good at those things, the answers we would get from a question like “How does not having children affect your career?” would be far more personal and less work-centered.

To be fair, we have heard from some women who say that delaying childbirth or choosing not to parent has allowed them to take advantage of opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have. Children are expensive. The museum field isn’t Goldman Sachs. Pay in many institutions is modest at best. A no-child life allows for home ownership, travel, and fellowships to name a few examples we heard about this week.

But then there are the folks who feel that they’ve been taken advantage of because they don’t have to drive anyone to soccer on Thursdays or ballet on Fridays, who can be counted on to be available for weekend events or who have been asked to “cover,”frequently without pay, for a staff member who is on maternity/paternity leave. These aren’t questions solely about staff members with children–after all some of us may also have aging parents who need care and attention as well. These are questions about equity.

As leaders we shouldn’t decide things because they are easy, the “Oh, you’re free, you cover” method of asking staff to work more than their contracted amount.  At least we shouldn’t do it on a consistent basis. As leaders, we need to make sure our staff is valued equally. And no one should feel valued simply because he or she is free to cover the Sunday afternoon family event. Nor should anyone feel judged because she has to visit her mother in the nursing home. Why you’re not at work is no one’s business but your own.

Does your organization have a personnel policy? Does it provide for some form of personal time off? Is their an equitable method of accessing that time? If so, you’ve gone a long way toward ending the have children/don’t have children issues. Your staff can take time off for softball tournaments or a weekly massage. Those are their decisions. Your job as a leader is to make sure that the ability to make choices is equitable and that no one uses a child or an aging parent to take advantage of fellow staff members. That’s not to say that we all shouldn’t step up in times of crisis, but again, a leader needs to differentiate between crisis and poor time management on the part of staff.

So, as we look toward 2016, if your organization doesn’t have a personnel policy or if it’s so lame you find yourself responding to situations as they happen rather than looking to the policy for answers, make that a goal for the new year. As we’ve said here before, leaders aren’t psychologists, but they do need to make sure that the employee benefits are equally accessible and that no one staff demographic takes advantage of another.

As always, share your thoughts. Leadership Matters will be back in 2016 with some predictions, hopes and fears for the year ahead in MuseumLand.

Have a wonderful holiday,

Joan Baldwin



2 Comments on “And Once Again, It Comes Back to Leadership”

  1. Steve Smith says:

    A male responding: I have three kids and have to shuttle them around, have to, yes have to because I want to and because it’s what life should be about, go to assemblies for the little guy’s school…. It’s a constant challenge to find the balance between home and work. I don’t think you can depend on the institution to find it for you. I think you have to constantly push to keep it where you want it and where the institution wants it. I don’t know that it’s confine to our field though. I have siblings who live the same battle in very different fields. It all comes down to a terrible beer (Michelob) commercial (good commercial message, bad beer): “Some people live to work, and some people work to live.”

  2. Kim says:

    I am the executive director of a small museum (3 staff total), and I am expected to work wherever, whenever. I am an hourly employee, expected to work as a salaried employee (l get four hours of overtime a week, but work between 60-70 hours a week). This is all because I don’t have children and my husband works a two weeks on, two weeks off schedule. I can’t take weekends off because I’m expected to be on call if a volunteer doesn’t show up for their shift. I also can’t have kids due to health issues, but I can’t imagine adopting and working because I’d have no time for a child. Exceptions are constantly made for my assistant, who has kiss and grandkids coming into the museum, calling, interrupting constantly, and she gets to drop everything to take care of them. I know that wouldn’t be the case for me. I would have to put work before my child constantly, and that’s not something I’d want to do for a child.

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