Gender at the Museum TablePosted: February 29, 2016
Over the last month, this blog has seen an intense, and we believe, healthy discussion of museum salaries, but it’s been weeks since we’ve spoken about gender. For those of you who are first-time readers, we are finishing the manuscript for Women|Museums: Lessons from the Field. As a result, we are in the habit of writing about gender every four to six weeks. This week, while working on Women|Museums, we had an inspiring conversation with members of Museum Workers Speak. So here are some slightly random, but inter-related thoughts on gender prompted by that conversation.
For those of you care about the museum field, both its work spaces and its content-rich exhibition spaces, you should know what MWS is doing. You can find it on Twitter and on the Web at the incluseum. Its members are activists. They are courageous. They are queer, black, brown, straight and transgender. They are the people you want around your museum table. Did we agree on everything? Probably not. But we’re pretty certain they are a voice for the future.
Over the course of the conversation, MWS expressed concern that like the rest of the museum world, it too is seen as a white women’s group. Not true. MWS is a fierce advocate, pushing HR offices, boards and directors to hire people who reflect a museum’s community. And while MWS has been an advocate for paid internships, it is also a supporter of salary equity across the field.
Here at Leadership Matters we believe that there is a dissonance between the field’s content and the world of museum offices and HR. And like MWS, we don’t think tokenism is a way to solve the field’s diversity problem. We applaud the intent, but as we’ve written here before, if you want your museum to reflect your community, you have to know that community. In creating alliances with your city or town’s many racial and ethnic groups, you will also create opportunities for internships, community meetings, family gatherings and mentoring. Change like this isn’t sudden. In fact, it can seem glacial because you aren’t just changing the museum field, you’re changing society.
But here’s where we likely part company with MWS. It argues that the field’s whiteness creates barriers for a more diverse workforce. We agree, but the implication that the museum field’s white women are a privileged lot is one we dispute. Yes, the field’s low salaries have attracted legions of privileged white women, who are sometimes trailing spouses, but whose partner’s salaries allow them to manage on terminally low salaries. But not every white woman is a person of privilege. Nor is every white woman in the museum field. And our research points to a workforce of museum women who regularly experience inequitable treatment. We ruffled some feathers a week or so ago when we published a salary food chain, which began with straight white men, and ended with transgender folks. Yes, white women are ahead of women of color on that food chain, but that’s not saying much.
At several points during our conversation with MWS we spoke about “intersectionality,” the multi-dimensional nature of gender, identity, and race. At Leadership Matters we believe that for the field to heal itself, not only do we all need to be at the table, but–to quote Emma Watson’s HeforShe speech–we need to stop defining each other by what we’re not. In short, we need to worry more about inclusivity than diversity. We’ll end with a quote from Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist which sums things up for us: “To have privilege in one or more areas does not mean you are wholly privileged. Surrendering to the acceptance of privilege is difficult, but it is really all that is expected. What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgment of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered.”
Let us know what you’re thinking.