Gender at the Museum Table

gender word cloud

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.

Joan Baldwin

 

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9 Comments on “Gender at the Museum Table”

  1. Rebekah says:

    Actually, yes, every white woman IS a person of privilege. Whiteness bestows privilege by definition. There are things that I, as a white woman, will never, ever have to worry about that women of color deal with every day. Not all white women are wealthy, which is perhaps what you meant to say, but wealth is an aspect of privilege, it is not the entirety of it. It actually is significant that white women are ahead of women of color on the salary food chain, because in some cases the difference between the earnings of women of color compared to white women is quite significant – 54% of a white man’s earnings compared to 79%. I in no way mean to diminish the marginalization and inequalities white women face, the effects of which I have felt in my own life, and I do not disagree with the basics of what this article is saying, but perhaps it could have been phrased better. As Roxane Gay said, if we expect to work together then we must acknowledge the disparate ways in which society treats us, which in no way diminishes our personal experiences with sexism.

  2. Rebekah says:

    Actually, yes, every white woman IS a person of privilege. Whiteness bestows privilege by definition. There are things that I, as a white woman, will never, ever, have to worry about that women of color have to deal with every day. Not every white woman is wealthy, which is perhaps what you meant to say, but wealth is an aspect of privilege, is it not the entirety of it. And it actually is significant that white women are ahead of women of color in the salary food chain, because in some cases the differences between their earnings can be quite significant – 54% of a white man’s earnings compared to 79%. I in no way mean to diminish the marginalization and inequalities that white women face, the effects of which I have felt in my own life, nor do I disagree with what this article is fundamentally saying, but perhaps it could have been phrased better. As Roxane Gay said, if we expect to work together we must acknowledge the differences in the way that society treats us, which in no way denies our own personal experiences with sexism. I hope you are giving the experiences of women of color due attention in your upcoming book.

  3. In my workplace, women out number men and I hope we hire based on ability and experience not race and gender.

  4. And I might add, where I live inequality is based on language, not gender, colour or sexual orientation

  5. Thanks for including the Roxanne Gay quote which really helped me to process the argument about privilege, which I already accepted intellectually, without getting emotionally defensive. I am privileged in all kinds of ways, but that doesn’t mean I’m not also disadvantaged in others.

    Like Evelyn Fidler, in my home society (Canada) language is another marker of inequality, as is legal status (temporary foreign workers), as is indigenous status, and so is isolation (northern and Arctic places). These are perhaps even more relevant that gender and skin colour (or at least as) in our context.

    • I one hundred percent agree Kevin, isolation and indigenous are also markers of disadvantage also rural -urban. We don’t have much of an issue with temporary foreign workers in New Brunswick. We rarely see persons of “colour” applying for work in my field and in some places women out number men and are paid the same.

      • Thanks Evelyn. In Alberta temporary foreign workers are a major issue: rural communities lost all of their young people to the oilsands and big cities over the last twenty years, and now there is no one left to work in nursing homes, restaurants, packing plants and other semi-skilled rural workplaces. TFWs filled the gap, but they don’t have the right to stay and get citizenship (easily) so they can be abused.

        Seaking of women not being paid the same:
        http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/20/upshot/as-women-take-over-a-male-dominated-field-the-pay-drops.html
        As museums become more female, we are in danger of being paid less. This is a problem!

      • evelyn says:

        I find that the problem with museums is that can pay what they want and get away with it. The only exception is government funded museums which I am fortunate to work for. I get full benefits, merit increases, chance for promotion. I don’t take this for granted for one second but I have worked hard for 35 years in the field to get to where I am. I knew I was never going to make alot of money in this field and almost opted for my second choice of career, law but I am happy, love where I live except for winters lol and have an awesome team to work with. I encourage others to stick it out and if you can’t support yourself, I am afraid that the reality is that working in museums will never make you rich.


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