Taking the Museum Gender Equity Pulse in Texas

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Texas may not have originated the phrase “Go big or go home,” but it could have. It’s a big place, bigger than France. Last week Leadership Matters traveled to Houston for the Texas Association of Museums (TAM) annual meeting where we keynoted day two for 550 museum folk from all corners of the state.

None of that is particularly unusual. Both of us speak fairly frequently on either leadership or gender or both. What was odd (and gratifying) was that out of the approximately 65 state, regional or national museum service organizations, it is TAM who chose to make gender equity the focus of its 2018 meeting.

Here on the East Coast, mention Texas and you may get some eye rolling. Folks will tell you that Austin has great music or food, but then conversation may turn to the fact that it’s a place you’re allowed to carry your holstered handgun out in public. Then there’s the weather (hot), and the fact that it might not have any trees. And maybe in the minds of the Metropolitan Museum-going public, it might not have any museums. But it does. Big ones, uber-wealthy ones, tiny historic sites, and major history museums, all nurtured and supported by TAM. And it is the TAM board and staff who chose this year–the year of Post-Weinstein, #MeToo, and #TimesUp– to make gender equity the centerpiece of its meeting.  (In 2017 TAM also launched a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion series headlined by Chris Taylor from the Minnesota Historical Society so this isn’t its first foray into challenging workplace issues.)

How bold was this gender equity focus? Pretty bold. Bigger organizations might shy away. Gender equity–despite its relentless focus on closing the pay gap, a gap that according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW) is dramatically worse for Native and Latina women than for black women, and certainly for Asian or white women–has been the after-thought problem in the museum world for 45 years. And this in a year when data shows us that nationally 81-percent of women and 43-percent of men experience sexual harassment in their lifetimes. Some might say that the museum world, with its 46.7-percent female workforce, should sit up and pay attention. That’s how TAM felt, and that’s how we found ourselves speaking to a lunch-time audience in the Hyatt Regency.

Before we went, we launched a survey on Facebook to confirm (or bust) what we believed about gender equity in museums versus working in other job sectors in the United States. As of Sunday 625 humans had taken part. The survey is still open if you’d like to participate. What did we learn? That 62-percent of those folks say they’ve been discriminated against because of their gender. And more alarmingly, that 49-percent have experienced verbal and/or sexual harassment at work. What does this say about the museum field? Haven’t you all had enough? Texas is taking care of its own, but isn’t it time for more museum service agencies to follow the TAM model and stand up and say gender inequity is a bad thing?

Gender inequity is insidious. For women of color, it means a workplace that mixes racial bias with gender bias in ways that multiply the occasions for hurt, harassment and EEOC complaints. We’ll leave you with the same quote that ended our TAM speech. It’s from a participant in our recent survey who wrote,

“I feel like a second-class citizen.”

No one working in the museum world should feel like that. We have the power to make change. Let’s do it.

Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson

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