What’s Missing From “7 Factors That Drive Museum Wages Down”?

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As people who’ve written and spoken about the museum pay crisis since 2012, Leadership Matters was heartened to read 7 Factors That Drive Museum Wages Down. Written by Michael Holland, it was wonderful to see such an important topic addressed by a forum like Alliance Labs since by inference it carries AAM’s blessing. But that was before we read the article. In our opinion, Holland skipped a few key points. And judging from some of the 20-plus comments, one of which was ours, we weren’t alone. So here’s our response:

1: Gender inequity and the pay gap failed to make Holland’s list. In some ways this isn’t a surprise. Michael Holland is male, and by his own admission, he frequently works for large, well-endowed museums so maybe he hasn’t encountered the gender pay gap? Maybe he doesn’t know that many women doing work similar to his (exhibit design)–not to mention the traditionally female bastions of museum education or event planning– will not make as much as he did in 2017 until April 10 of this year? Maybe he doesn’t understand that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the museum field is 46.7-percent female, and that when a field slips down the pink collar slope it’s not a good thing?

2. While Holland lists the “Spousal Income Subsidy” as a way the field depends on hiring people who bring along a second income, he never explores what that means. Whether it’s an employee with a hedge fund spouse or an employee with a trust fund, the need for a second income frequently acts as a class and race barrier. Is it any wonder the museum workforce has a diversity problem? 

3. He addressed the question of a burgeoning number of museum studies programs, offering both undergraduate and graduate training, and the resulting glut of too many inexperienced candidates desperate for employment, but he doesn’t mention these programs are costly, and that many emerging professionals begin their working careers with educational debt that’s the equivalent of a mortgage. And yet we work in a field that tells people if you don’t have a master’s degree, you can’t come to the party.

4. This is a corollary to #3. Holland makes passing reference to unpaid internships. (It appears he’s not a fan.) But he never addresses the damage done by an expensive graduate school education, followed by a series of unpaid or poorly paid internships, meaning that someone could be “in the field” for four years or so before finding a salaried position. And that’s if they’re lucky.

Don’t get us wrong. We’re glad Holland wrote his article, glad to see it published by Alliance Labs, and glad to see it debated and questioned in the Comments. Sometimes it’s depressing being the broken record yammering about gender, pay equity, poor pay, and lousy leadership every week. So–in the tradition of Leadership Matters–where we believe we can all make change, here are some things that might help the museum salary crisis.

For individuals, and women especially: Don’t take a job without negotiating. Use the GEMM (Gender Equity in Museums) 5 Things You Need to Know About Salary Negotiations tip sheet. And for goodness sake look at MIT’s Living Wage Calculator to make sure you can afford to live (really live) on what you’re being offered. If you’re already working in a position you enjoy, when your annual review rolls around, don’t forget to ask for a raise. Again, there’s a 5 Things Tip Sheet for that.

For organizations and directors: Work with your board to make sure it understands the value of your museum’s human resources. People matter. Make sure you and your board know what it costs to live in your community. Make sure the board understands the cost of a churning staff, the time it takes new staff to get up to speed, the resulting loss of institutional momentum and organizational knowledge when someone leaves, and the damage done when a team is disrupted.

Solve your wage equity problem first. Do men at your organization make more than women? Do white women make more than women of color?

If you’re faced with the you-can’t-get-blood-from-a-stone argument, make an effort to put all the other pieces in place to support staff–HR support, equitable benefits, paid time off, maternity/paternity leave, even housing if that’s available. When was the last time you reviewed your personnel policy? Make sure new applicants know the work you’ve done around wages and benefits.

For regional and national museum service organizations: Isn’t it time for a wage summit that would bring together big thinkers from inside and outside the field to tackle this problem?

Joan Baldwin

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16 Comments on “What’s Missing From “7 Factors That Drive Museum Wages Down”?”

  1. Tara Young says:

    I agree with most of your points here, but I have to call out #3. Yes, museum studies graduate programs can be expensive, but your generalizations here are inaccurate. The number of museum studies programs isn’t “burgeoning.” Few have opened since 2000, and at least one major one has closed. Many programs have significantly lower enrollment currently than they had say 10 years ago. On a related note, there isn’t a “glut” of graduates (700/year nationwide according to datausa), and they certainly aren’t “inexperienced.” I teach museum studies, and all of my students have had part- or full-time museum jobs, as well as internships (certainly, unpaid internships are a major issue). My students are extremely well qualified, smart, articulate, and creative. As such, they’re not “desperate” — many of them have multiple opportunities because they’re desirable to employers. Further, not all museum studies programs are expensive (though some certainly are). And lastly, if you regularly read job postings, it’s a myth that master’s degrees are required for entry-level jobs. It is a pet peeve of mine that museum studies programs get blamed for all sorts of major issues within museum employment that go much, much deeper, and that the same platitudes get repeated absent real data about how museum studies programs are affecting the museum workplace. In many cases its’ these smart, engaged emerging professionals who are doing the most to advocate for change in our field.

    • Evelyn Fidler says:

      Tara I know of at least two museum studies programs in Canada that aren’t allowed for their students to take paid internships due to insurance.

  2. Evelyn says:

    So I know my opinion isn’t popular. I would like to see statistics that prove there is a wage gap between gender and colour? Does it take into consideration education and experience for the same position? It is riculous to compare what a male curator makes with a female working in education. Compare similar positions similar experience ( not just years worked) similar professional development courses and similar degrees. I think the end answer will put a test to the perceived notion of gender and colour wage gaps.

  3. Evelyn–
    You are right in that we do not have statistics on the wage gap for women of color for the museum world; however, if you trust AAUW–and you may not–here is a link that proves that in the US working world there is a discrepancy by race. https://www.aauw.org/research/the-simple-truth-about-the-gender-pay-gap/ And while we have work to do to prove that the same is true for museum workers, I will say that in our research on gender in the museum world, the vast majority of what happens outside museums is also true for museums.
    J. Baldwin

  4. I would recommend that every woman read the book “Women Don’t Ask” by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. It is an easy read, and an eye-opener! It will provide the reader with inspiration to negotiate and navigate these sometimes overwhelming conversations around pay and promotion. Good read for women and men alike.

  5. To Joan’s piece, I say AMEN & AMEN!

    Personally, I would not wait for a “summit” to be organised. Opportunity for museum workers to attend the AAM AGM to pass appropriate resolutions directing executive & staff to get busy addressing these matters approaches. Why delay any more?

    “If our work in museums is evidence of our collective commitment to enhancing the quality of life for society, then we must be attentive to maintaining a high quality of life for our work community.” [This from Elaine Heuman Gurian, Institutional Trauma: Major Change in Museums and its Effect on Staff, Washington: American Association of Museums, 1995, pp. 20-21.]

  6. Conny says:

    Evelyn,
    I had to fight twice, in two different museums for equal pay, when I discovered that a male, with less experience and education, was being paid much more than I. Joan, I agree with all of your points but one thing is still missing- transparency. Until museums are transparent about salaries, I am not sure change will happen. I hope I am wrong. I found out in both cases from someone in the budget office ( female of couse!, one of whom left the museum one week later)) that I had been discriminated due to my gender.

    • Evelyn Fidler says:

      Was it for the exact same position? I agree that transparency in wages is essential and employers are selfish to hold back on that information. That being said, how were they able to gather information on wages in order to do the report?

  7. Michael Holland says:

    Hi, Joan –

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts. In my article, I mentioned that my list of 7 factors was likely not complete and that it was probable that I’ve missed some parts of the picture, and it’s great to see other voices bringing those parts into the discussion.

    Regarding the gender pay gap, I must admit that my own personal experience with it is quite limited. This is because I’m often (though not always) the only person with my position in the museum, so there’s not anyone doing the same job (male or female) to compare compensation with. Add to that the tendency toward opacity about museum salaries in general and it’s tough to get information to base any assessment of equity upon. (A notable exception to this is the federal government, which has the Grade/Step system that is public record and easily accessed.) I’m aware of the macroeconomic condition of gender pay inequity across the entire workforce, and am not surprised to see that this would be present in our sector as well.

    Regarding the effects of the spousal income subsidy, (which absolutely does contribute to erecting race and class barriers) my interest was on what effect that might have on museum wages, rather than on diversity within the field. These two things share common threads, but they’re not the same question.

    With the issue of costly educations and high student loan debt, this is a very real crisis (in my opinion a big part of what drives people away from the museum field), but I’m not sure if high educational cost and the debt that often comes with it by themselves are actively pushing wages down. There are other fields which have very high educational costs and requirements and big debt loads, but with much higher compensation (medicine, engineering, etc.). Where we run into trouble is the fact that our cost of admission into the profession (high) and our compensation once we get there (low) are poorly aligned (to put it mildly).

    In my article, I didn’t offer any solutions to the problems I outlined, but I’m sure that there are many good ideas within our community. Thanks for sharing some of yours! I was pleased to see that you have offerings for individuals, museum leadership, and for regional and national museum service organizations, as this issue will need action on all fronts. Thanks for doing your part!

  8. Brad says:

    I am fortunate because I work in a government museum and starting salaries for permanent positions are part of a large matrix of positions and salary ranges. There is some leeway in where to place a starting salary based on experience, but a candidate cannot negotiate a salary. On the other hand, neither is there discrimination based on race, gender, etc. Whether government or non-government museum, there is a finite amount of dollars for operations. For example, we have been impacted by drastic and rapid increases in health insurance costs over the last 5-6 years, which means less dollars available for personnel, regardless of urgency. Our LTE positions, which includes internships, attempts to mirror existing salary schedules, but there is no getting round the fact that LTE pay is tied strongly to our ability to raise money. I suspect increasing salaries in non-government museums is closely tied to the ability of that institution to raise money. All museum professionals need to be aware that strengthening the nation’s economy, and issues like health care, can have a major, lasting impact on the ability of museums to raise money and thus set or adjust salaries. Also, in my experience transparent salaries are a double-edged sword; it sounds great on paper, but it can can be divisive.

    • Evelyn Fidler says:

      Good points. I also work in a government museum. The problem is, and we see this in places where minimum wages are raised, there is only finite money to go around. You raise salaries and the people at the bottom, the emerging professionals, get cut out and those still employed are asked to do more at the same salary.

  9. Alex Tronolone says:

    Hi Team,

    I don’t have a blog, but I wanted to add my thoughts here – they’re a little long for the comments field though…

    Museum workers would do well to heed the lessons of the West Virginia teachers. Going out on a wildcat strike, the teachers accomplished in a nine-day strike what years of negotiations, council meetings, letters to elected representatives, and well-reasoned arguments had failed to produce: pay increases, health care cost control, and improved working conditions. If these issues seem familiar to museum workers

    In recent years, writing articles about the field’s pay and equity issues has become a veritable sub-industry. (Self-help articles about advocacy and job search tips are the other half of this genre). The issues are well-known, well-described, and pernicious.

    What the West Virginia teachers teach us is that collective issues require collective solutions. The issues in the museum field are as broad as they are deep. Relying on individuals to improve institutions will always be highly uneven and vulnerable to roll-back once staff change.

    Since museums are ultimately not run by their staff but by their boards

    The issues described in “7 Factors That Drive Museum Wages Down” (and the additional factors noted in “What’s Missing From “7 Factors That Drive Museum Wages Down”?) are the same factors that exert downward pressure on all wages in capitalist economies, hence the basic unit of working class self-defense in the Union. There is no other organization that can guarantee wage transparency, gender and racial equity, and improved working conditions (like family leave, paid time off, tuition reimbursement, etc.). The teachers showed us how to use that organization to go on the offense and improve our conditions.

    West Virginia teachers spent months preparing for the strike, doing outreach to their communities and including them in their demands, too. When they shut down the schools, they continued to provide lunches for the students who relied on those lunches for sustenance. They included all state workers in their demands, not just themselves. And they worked hand-in-hand with their communities, linking their success to greater equity for all – “This state has to invest into our future.” These are lessons museums, whose fates are intimately linked to their communities, would do well to study.

    Ultimately, more money must be made available to cultural institutions if people want cultural institutions to continue to function, and they must value that labor appropriately. A reckoning must be had: low salaries, few opportunities for advancement, and exploitative working conditions will continue to chew through successive generations of museum workers, or more money will be found to fund those jobs at an appropriate level. The alternative is the status quo.

    What should museum workers demand? (To whom should we address the demand?) And how should we organize collectively to achieve it? How do we include the largest number of museum workers in our organization without replicating the hierarchical structures of our workplaces? And, just as importantly, how can we stay organized to maintain it once we’ve won? How can museums with existing workplace organizations help those that are unorganized? How can museums with existing workplace organizations ensure that their organizations are healthy; not moribund and corrupt?

    • Michael Holland says:

      Hello, Alex –

      Sometimes comments that are too long to fit into the comment section are those most worthy of making (and reading), so thanks so much for posting yours! In my 7 Factors article, my goal was to attempt to get a clearer picture of what factors were driving the problem of low pay in museums rather than to offer solutions to it, so I didn’t suggest any. Several have added their perspective and helped to create a more nuanced and complete picture, which helps to achieve that goal. I imagined that by identifying the driving factors, discussion of possible solutions would naturally become the next step, and it’s encouraging to see comments like yours which look forward to the solutions phase.

      While the problem writ large can be distilled down to the classic labor vs. capital struggle in a capitalist economy, I think it’s helpful to identify more specifically the conditions that prevail in museums (which closely parallel those in many non-profits). Many of these factors are well-known, but they’re not always well-expressed, especially by younger museum professionals who either haven’t had many years living with these conditions, or who may feel like they’re not in a strong position to be speaking up about them within their own workplace. I’ve been hearing from many who have personally contacted me and told me that simply seeing the situation clearly laid out inspired them to talk with their peers about it, and that moving beyond the “suffer in silence” phase was very valuable to them. Going from thinking about the problem to talking about the problem is how solidarity within a group is formed, and that solidarity and unity is what makes actions like those of the West Virginia teachers possible.

      Collective action will be needed, as will action on the part of individuals, especially those in leadership positions, including museum board members. The “bosses vs. workers” hierarchy has an inherent “us vs. them” element, but I think that museum leaders who take bold action to improve the sustainability of museum careers (and their own museums as a result) will find broad support among their staff, and I would love to have them as allies.

      I think you’re absolutely correct in saying that ultimately we’re just going to have to find more money. Society is going to have to decide that museums are a worthwhile use of public resources, and that the people entrusted with building and maintaining them are worth fair compensation. Then they’ll have to vote accordingly. While continuing to make that case, I think it’s also worth examining the allocation of resources that we already do have and asking if it’s happening in a fair or equitable way.

      Your final questions will be crucial ones to continue to ask as this movement coalesces. I would be very interested to hear how you and other museum workers might answer them. Would you consider putting them into an article of your own and soliciting input from the community?

      Thanks for contributing to the discussion!

  10. […] From “7 Factors That Drive Museum Wages Down”?” Leadership Matters post on March 4, 2018 https://leadershipmatters1213.wordpress.com/2018/03/04/whats-missing-from-7-factors-that-drive-museu… (accessed 19 March 2018). Also see A Call for Gender Equity in the Museum Workplace: […]

  11. […] From “7 Factors That Drive Museum Wages Down”?” Leadership Matters post on March 4, 2018 https://leadershipmatters1213.wordpress.com/2018/03/04/whats-missing-from-7-factors-that-drive-museu… (accessed 19 March 2018). Also see A Call for Gender Equity in the Museum Workplace: […]


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