The Diversity vs. Salary Question

Museum Worker of Color

In the wake of our return from AAM’s annual meeting in St. Louis, we’ve thought a lot about the lily whiteness of the museum field. It’s a monumental problem, and to be fair, it’s a problem the field is working hard to solve. But salaries are also an issue, and here the field is far less aggressive, indeed it’s sometimes silent. And yet until we acknowledge how questions of diversity and salary are linked, neither will be solved, and we will live on as the profession best practiced by white young men and women with trust funds.

Leadership Matters is not the first to talk about the diversity/salary link. Many voices over the last five years have raised this question, not the least of which was Museum Workers Speak in its rogue meeting two years ago at AAM in Atlanta. But what floats to the surface from these speeches, panel discussions, tweets and blog posts is overwhelmingly about race, not salary.

Many museums’ origin stories belong to the oligarchs, whether male or female, who, often with the noblest of intentions, created collections for the rest of us. They are traditional, hierarchical organizations, and until about 25 years ago, led predominantly by traditional, white men burdened with more scholarly degrees than leadership experience. (If you need a 21st-century version of this story, look no further than the great, grand Metropolitan Museum. Inside a Met Director’s Shocking Exit.)

The worst cases of diversity-fixing have involved keeping everything the same, but strategically replacing a member of a museum’s leadership team with a person or persons of color. No one can object. The optics are right, and in many cases those hires actually made and continue to make change. And one assumes they were hired at better than average salaries, although we know, that if the person of color in question is a woman, her salary is likely to be almost 30-percent less than her white male colleagues. The Pollyanna in us can say something is better than nothing. At least she’s there. Small steps, blah, blah. Yes, but…..

At the staff level, where men and women with newly-minted graduate degrees compete for a ridiculously small number of jobs, many with poor to pathetic salaries, things don’t change. (Panera Bread pays its shift supervisors $11.48/hour and we’re pretty sure they don’t require an advanced degree.) And it’s here that race and class come face to face with a job sector that expects a master’s degree, maybe an internship or two, before offering a life-time of earning less than $50,000 annually. Why should a young woman of color invest in graduate school to then have to pay student loans while earning less than $15/hour with no benefits? Why should young women who want to combine parenthood with career, work for museums whose response to child bearing is “Use FMLA, and we’ll hold your job for you” or worse, “Our staff is under 50 people, so we don’t have to offer FMLA”?

Yes, we’ve been a too-white, sometimes biased field for too long. But built into too many museum’s workplace DNA is the idea that you are lucky to be there at all. This is the evil stepsister of Elizabeth Merritt’s Sacrifice Measure. There, she defined a culture where predominantly white, well-educated wanna-be museum staff were willing to live with too many roommates, and skimp on their daily lattes in order to work in the rarified atmosphere of museums and cultural organizations. But how about the museums that exploit that desire? Who in action and deed tell emerging professionals you only need to sacrifice for a decade or more and then your median salary will be $48,000. Really?

If you taught public school, worked in a public library, which also require a master’s degree, your salary would be transparent and your national organization–the American Library Association or your teachers union might take a stand about what salary was appropriate for a masters degree holding person with some experience. We could be wrong, but we have trouble imagining a municipal library saying “We’re non-profit, so we can’t pay that much.” You could envision the ladder you might climb, and it wouldn’t involve hopping from part-time work, to a grant-funded position before finally reaching a full-time position. Don’t get us wrong. We’re not suggesting that other fields are nirvana, but until the museum field–from the top–AAM, AASLH, museum thought leaders and board members– tackles this problem we will be a field easiest occupied by those with high-earning partners or trust funds. That does not make for a diverse workforce.

Joan H. Baldwin

11 Comments on “The Diversity vs. Salary Question”

  1. Evelyn Fidler says:

    I am confused, what is the issue here? Salary or diversity? Call me a naive Canadian but I don’t think the issue is tied that closely together. Everyone is fighting for the same salary whatever their colour. Also I have a problem with the term “white”, we are Caucasian, if you feel uncomfortable using the term “black” then please don’t use “white” and white is a colour as well.

    • Agreed. Another Canadian here. Is Joan H. Baldwin SERIOUS? Salary is NOT the problem here. HIRING BIAS is the problem full stop–regardless of what the job pays. Unless hiring bias is solved, we could pay a lawyer’s or architect’s hourly fee for all jobs to start & still not get diversity.

  2. Therese Quinn says:

    Caucasian isn’t a thing, and we should all stop using it. See:

    Black is a term linked to social movements for justice, and is still in frequent use (“Movement for Black Lives”!), so makes sense to use.

    In some cases, “European ancestry” and “African ancestry” and so on, could be useful, as well.

    • Evelyn Fidler says:

      I read the article and the background to the term but I don’t agree with terms such as European American and African American as being synonymous with “colour”. Not all European Americans are white and not all African Americans are black. There is also those who may have immigrated to a country not Africa, Asia or Europe. My ancestors immigrated to Canada from the United States so does that make me a American-Canadian? In Canada our identity is not as tied to race or origins but more to language, we hear Francophone and Anglophone more than white, black, European etc.
      I would also be interested to see statistics on salaries of how women who are non white and women who are white instead of comparing the salaries of non white women to white men?

  3. Cathy Smith says:

    Social and economic inequality comes in all color, ethnicity, gender, and orientation. No argument, these issues disproportionately impact minorities. However, to assume that all “white” museum staff have trust funds is just ridiculous. I grew up in a poor neighborhood on the wrong side of Chicago. My parents didn’t have money. I took out loans to make my education happen. I am struggling HARD to pay off those loans working in this industry that grossly undervalues its professionals. I went through the same nonsense with unpaid internships that everyone else had to. There are so many things really messed up with this field, and in your article, you hit a good number of them square on the head. The field desperately needs greater diversity, needs to value their employees, needs to pay them in accordance with their education and experience, and needs to stop treating them like they should just be happy to have the job. I will also agree that “inherent social wealth” is extremely real and that I benefit from it. But please, please do not caste every white person in the same trust-fund baby mold. It’s gross over-stereotyping.

    • Evelyn Fidler says:

      Well said Cathy! I certainly did not have a trust fund and paid dearly for my education myself.

      • Evelyn Fidler says:

        In an ideal situation bias would not occur when hiring the best person for the job. I believe a person nee hired on merit, experience and the person who can best do the job. Non colour, race or gender. If there was no bias in hiring, diversity would occur naturally. If two applicants apply for a job one is a white male and another a female of colour but the white male has more experience, education and has more of the needed skills, it would be reverse discrimination o n hire him. Everyone deserves an equal playing field no matter if you are white, colour, male or female. Filling quotas in the job market went out in the nineties.

  4. Could it be that the lily whiteness of the museum field is significantly inherent to its unspoken objective or that no amount of diversity or pay equity among staff members will alter the course of state-supported benefits designed to secure a largely-white donor class with increased incentives to optimize their wealth in tax-free non-profit institutions..?

  5. […] for nothing except debt. And those type of internships are a not-so-subtle race and class barrier. (See The Diversity vs. Salary Question). Clearly, once she decided to forego graduate school and the museum world, Milldrum had the skill […]

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