Museum Leaders: The Words You Use

Words Matter

This week a colleague posted the following on social media: “Five words to use when describing what others would call a bitch: Formidable, assertive, dominant, powerful, decisive. I proudly claim all of those attributes. Screw the bitch one.” Since it’s Women’s History Month and also the time of year when many of you will either be doing performance reviews or participating in them, we thought we should focus on language, gender, and performance.

You may believe you’ve got this particular issue covered. You wore red on International Women’s day; your museum is all over Women’s History Month; you’ve gotten approval from your board to revise your organization’s personnel policies with an eye toward mitigating gender bias. And the vast majority of your staff–particularly in education and collections– is women. What more can you do?

The answer is plenty. While the list above is laudable, a lot of gender bias happens unconsciously which is why it deserves more work, particularly when it comes to language. Are you aware, for example, that in a 2014 study of tech industry performance reviews  women were far more likely to receive critical feedback then men–71-percent vs. 2-percent? Worse, the criticism was associated with perceived personality traits. In other words, even when men and women both received suggestions for improvement, and, after all, that’s in part what performance reviews are about, those for women were tied to perceived behavior. They included words like bitchy, bossy, brash, abrasive and aggressive. To the woman on the receiving end that translates to “improve your staff presentations and, by the way, stop being so (insert-your-adjective-here.)”

And let’s be clear: Women are not immune to unconscious bias so this isn’t a male leadership versus a female leadership thing. Women also tend to evaluate men on their potential rather than behavior, offering constructive criticism, while being supportive. Women’s evaluations, whether done by men or women, tend to be more focused on behavior causing the women being evaluated to prove themselves again and again. What this means is women are evaluated by the way they have done something while men are evaluated by their capacity to improve.

And bias isn’t something that only rears its head in relation to others. When I asked permission to use the opening quote, I discovered that its author, Ilene Frank, Chief Curator at the CT Historical Society, had actually used the word bitch about herself. She explained it this way: “I had a moment the other day where, after making a comment that needed to be made, I felt bad about the tone I used and the force with which the statement came out. No one criticized me for it, but I felt bad. I texted my girlfriend and wrote ‘I think I was just a bitch.” To which she, in her wisdom, responded, “How about assertive?'”

Here are some suggestions for combatting workplace bias throughout the performance review season:

If you’re a leader:

  • Review your staff assessments for the last several years. Make a list of the adjectives you use for men, versus women. Is there are difference?
  • If your staff is large, you may want to repeat the exercise breaking down assessments by age, race and LGBTQ. Remember, you’re not looking for Title IX violations; you need to identify your own way of “seeing.” Who is your tone gentler with? Who is it easier to be direct with? Why?
  • We’re going to assume all your employees receive annual performance reviews, and have access to them. If not, think about fixing that.
  • At the end of the day or the week,  as you reflect, refine, and prepare to try again, think about the language you use about yourself. There is a reason it’s called unconscious bias.

If you are a staff member:

  • Review your own assessments. Look for the places where you feel you were judged on personality, gender, race or age, rather than performance.
  • If there are adjectives that bothered you in a previous review, and still bother you, write them down. If those words are used again, feel free to smile sweetly and ask your director if she would like to choose another word or whether that is a word she would apply to–for example–an older, straight man?
  • If you report to more than one individual, you may want to ask about the possibility of a 360 review from your multiple direct reports. Studies show that more and varied feedback helps level the playing field.
  • At the end of the day or the week, as you reflect, refine and prepare to try again, think about the language you use about your self. There is a reason it’s called unconscious bias.

Tell us about bias at your museum, unconscious or not.

Joan Baldwin

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One Comment on “Museum Leaders: The Words You Use”

  1. Greg Jackson says:

    My opinion only, obviously. I work in a historic district and museum with several female directors and/or department heads. They are all strong, assertive and smart. I think there is a difference between things like “assertive, dominant, powerful” and bitch. Being a bitch (or for guys, being a dick) brings with it a sense of mean-spiritedness. You can be assertive or dominant without being a bitch/dick. That said, however, I don’t deny that some men will call a woman a bitch, just because she annoys him for one reason or another. But they are also just as likely to call a male co-worker a dick. And there are, admittedly, those men (and women!) that don’t like to work for a strong female personality.


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