Museum Women: Why Are We Tolerating This?

Screenshot 2018-10-15 08.53.02

Image: Most Frequent Forms of Gender Discrimination (in the museum workplace), from THE SURVEY: Gender Equity in the Museum Workplace, conducted by Anne W. Ackerson and Joan Baldwin, 2018.

Last week, I participated in a panel at the Southeastern Museums Conference in Jackson, Mississippi. Organized by Heather Nowak and titled “Women on the Rise,” the panel included AAM President Laura Lott, Betsy Bradley, Director of the Mississippi Museum of Art, and me. I was there not in my Leadership Matters capacity, but as the co-author of Women in the Museum, and one of the co-founders of the Gender Equity in Museums Movement (GEMM). The audience was all women.

Laura Lott opened the session, speaking about AAM’s salary survey, but perhaps most importantly about the gender bias she encountered serving on a national search committee. She also spoke about being a working mother, and the times when she’s ended up bringing her child to work. Lott’s background is in finance, and I don’t think I’m misquoting her when I say she’s still surprised at how patriarchal and old-fashioned the non-profit world is around issues of gender.

I spoke second, reviewing some of the myths associated with gender in the museum world — myths about pay equity, about feminism itself — and the fact that the Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that women are now 50.1-percent of the museum workforce. The latter is particularly disturbing since a pink collar field is not necessarily a healthy field, and with wages in the museum world already suppressed, trending toward all-female could be the final nail in the salary coffin.

Betsy Bradley closed the session. Tall and elegant, Bradley describes herself as a polite Southern woman. She’s lived and worked in Jackson, MS, most of her adult life. After outlining her career, Bradley talked about three things: Not feeling guilty about being a working parent; asking for what you want; and #MeToo. Her #MeToo story was so unexpected that the room, which included several of Bradley’s staff, fell silent. Following the incident, Bradley took care of herself, but she told only a few people, two board members and a family member. Ultimately the accused resigned his position.

Our session took place a week after Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. No matter where your allegiances lie, for many, Ford’s testimony brought back their own experiences with sexual harassment and assault. Tuesday in Jackson, MS nerves were raw  So it is no wonder that during the concluding Q&A, the second question never really got asked because the woman, who’d been assaulted, broke down while trying to speak.

My question to all of you is how long can this go on? We like to say how much we love our work, how important it is, how special and wonderful the museum field is, and yet two 2018 surveys, one by Anne Ackerson, and one by nikhil trivedi and Aletheia Whitman report that 49-percent and 55-percent respectively of museum workers identifying as female have experienced sexual harassment, assault or abuse. So when is enough enough? If you or your organization is looking to make change, we suggest……

  • Make sure your board understands that operating a museum or heritage organization means Title VII or the EEOC apply to you. You owe it to your organization to know how.
  • Create or update your HR policy. Make sure you and the Board know what steps an employee who’s experienced sexual harassment should take. Is the reporting system clear, understandable and equitable?
  • Talk with your staff leaders. Help them understand that if 50-percent of museum workers experience sexual harassment, assault or abuse, they need to know how to deal with it. Suggesting an alleged victim go talk to her alleged harasser is not the answer. People who’ve been hurt, violated and humiliated aren’t interested in being hurt, violated and humiliated a second time.
  • Make sure your organization stands for something. Do you have a values statement? Is it clear you stand for a code of behavior? It’s hard to excuse or explain sexual harassment, when an organization is clear from the beginning about its code of conduct.

There are a lot of issues that swirl around gender in the museum workplace, but no one should come to work to be hurt, abused or harassed. Museums and heritage organizations have been complicit in a system that oppresses women for too long. We’re overdue for change.

Joan Baldwin


6 Comments on “Museum Women: Why Are We Tolerating This?”

  1. K says:

    I was at this session. Thank you for this post. I think women need resources like the ones you outlined. We also should not be afraid of repercussions.

    • Hmmm. Somehow, I truncated my original reply above. It should have appeared as below:

      More desperately needed challenges for our field. Thank you!

      May I also suggest:

      – all men need to be raised & [apparently] formally trained in anti-harassment behaviours
      – all Christian men need to be instructed in & follow the Boaz Principle from Ruth 2:9.

      Bible translators have come up with a range of interpretations of the original Hebrew wording. In various translations then, Boaz—an ancestor of Christ & also identified as a “type of Christ”—instructed [my own word, but the following are all in quotation marks from various common Bible translations], Boaz “told,” “charged,” “gave orders,” “commanded,” or “warned,” his men not to “touch,” “lay a hand on,” “treat roughly,” “bother,” “harass,” or “molest” Ruth. Let’s learn to follow this Scripture Christian men.

      – professional museum organisations need to be instructed by their members to address the gender pay inequity issue as a high priority. This unethical treatment of women has been identified for the AAM since 1945! See A Call for Gender Equity in the Museum Workplace website (Baldwin et al. 2016) & supporting evidence is repeated annually in the AAM salary report. See my recent blog entries & today’s 16 October 2018 post on the first Google hit for Solving Task Saturation linked below.

      – for members of AAM, we will first have to change the AAM Constitution [as is our right to do] in order to begin this necessary political action to have AAM report to the membership on ways & means of solving the problem. See my previous blog posts above.

      As I have said before, in the immortal words of cartoon character Popeye, “Enough is enough, and enough is too much!”

  2. Count me in!

    Teresa R. Kemp
    Nana Efua Adadzewa 1st
    Queen Mother Mankessim Traditional Area, Central Region Ghana Africa .


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