6 Tips for Museum Job Seekers

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As some of you may know, Anne Ackerson and I traveled to Waco, Texas last week to deliver the Largent Lecture for the Baylor University Museum Studies Program. In addition, we sat in on two classes, one in historic preservation, as well as the Program’s capstone class for second-year students. Our topic? Gender and the Museum Workplace.

First, I should note that our invitation came after we gave the keynote at the Texas Association of Museums (TAM) last year in Houston. The point here is not to toot our own horn, but Texas’s. People on the east coast (where we live) can sometimes be a little snarky about Texas, but what other state or regional museum association has taken the issue of gender, diversity, and the workplace and made it a focus? (Stay tuned because TAM has more programs ahead.)  So if you identify as a woman, and you feel as if the issue of workplace harassment and the pay gap are Ground-Hog day stories whose narratives don’t change except to cause you daily pain, know that at least one state museum organization is putting this issue front and center.

Since our audience was largely graduate students–many of whom are women– we had to walk the line between truth–this can sometimes be a difficult field that’s not particularly well-paid–and enthusiasm for careers we love and support. How do you tell a group of graduate students completing their master’s degrees, that it’s not always Nirvana out there?

When you begin in a field, you focus on content. After all, it’s what drew you to that particular sector in the first place. You can’t wait to…. insert one: catalogue a collection, do research, design an exhibit, conceptualize an exhibit, teach students, children, and families in museum spaces; wear a costume, learn to plow a field with a team of oxen. Few graduate students will tell you they can’t wait to manage a staff, understand overtime rules, negotiate personnel changes or have key board members resign. And yet, as we all know, the further you go in any career, the further you move from what brought you there in the first place, and the more time is taken with human interaction and thinking about the big picture. We’re told–and why wouldn’t it be true?–that in the first years of Amazon, Jeff Bezos packed the books himself and drove them to the post office.

The Baylor students had read some of Women in the Museum. In addition, they’d talked about some of the ethical and historical reasons for the museum field’s issues with sexual harassment, the gender pay gap, and its slow, inexorable turn toward becoming a pink collar profession. Our discussion focused on how, armed with that knowledge, they could be intentional about shaping their careers, be knowledgable about pay, and practice for interviews and pay negotiations. Trying to be hopeful, we opined that change will surely come, likely from their generation. There were a few pointed sighs in the room.

So…if you, like Baylor’s second-year students, will enter the job market this spring for the first time, we recommend:

  • Getting a copy of the AAM Salary Survey Cross-reference that data with other museum, nonprofit and allied career salary data from your community or state. The more data points you can consult, the stronger your case for your salary ask. Know what to expect salary-wise for your job choice before you’re called to interview.
  • Know what it will cost you to live where you’d like to work. Use MIT’s Living Wage Calculator (updated 2017) or the Economic Policy Institute’s calculator (updated 2018).
  • Use these figures as guard rails for subsequent compensation discussions.
  • Don’t think because you’re 24 and still on your parent’s health insurance that having no health benefits is acceptable. It is not.
  • Ask to meet the people you’ll be working with. Ask them how work gets done, how new ideas are nurtured, and where do they go if there are HR problems? Be alert to silence and eye rolling.
  • No offer is perfect. Negotiate. If you won’t be able to live on what’s offered without a second job, be prepared to walk away. And tell them why.

And if you’re hiring newly-minted graduates:

  • Use the AAM Salary Survey. Be able to talk knowledgeably about where your salaries fall versus the local and national figures.
  • Know what other benefits are on the table and how they differ from your competition, either local museums or nonprofits.
  • Provide time for your interviewee to meet the people s/he/they will work with.
  • The power balance is especially acute for first-time hires: Make sure you and your staff know an illegal question from a legal one.
  • Review your interview process for unconscious bias. You can also have your staff and board take Harvard’s implicit bias tests.

Based on the 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics figures the museum field is 50.1-percent female. And based on our 2018 survey of 700-plus humans, as well as nikhil trevidi and Aletheia Wittman’s 2018 survey of approximately 500 respondents, sexual harassment is alive and well in the museum field. As leaders, let’s do our best to make first-time job seekers’ journeys a smooth one and educate ourselves, our staffs, and our boards in the process.

Joan Baldwin

 

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