Bias by a Thousand Cuts: A True Story

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Sometimes people contact Leadership Matters with thoughts about blog posts. A few weeks ago a friend, a museum thought leader, suggested we speak with someone. Our friend felt this person was worth hearing. And she was right. The interviewee asked for anonymity, but here is what we can say: She uses the pronouns she/her. She worked full time in the museum business for more than a decade. Partnered and a parent, she left the field. She is articulate, thoughtful and self-aware. What gives her story such resonance is not its uniqueness so much as its sameness. And that’s the sad part. It’s 2019. The Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution was introduced almost a half-century ago and remains unrealized, yet, as of 2018, women comprised nearly half the American workforce.

As we’ve said before, women’s narratives in the museum workforce is a Ground-Hog day tale. Not only do experiences repeat themselves over generations, as our interviewee points out, too often harassment doesn’t arrive in the overt ways we’ve seen on television or watched in Congressional testimony. Too often it’s the death of a thousand small cuts. “When you sit underneath the best of the male directors,” she says, “He seems so woke and he’s not touching you under the table.” Her experience though leads her to ask whether too many museum leaders want diversity conceptually, but are ill-prepared to truly lead a diverse organization.

“My experience, ” she said, “led me to fall out of love with my museum.” She describes her former boss as someone who hired women and promoted women, and whose outward-facing reputation was good. But behind the curtain this director displayed many of the subtle gendered characteristics that foster a climate of bias. Oh, lots of men–especially older men–do that you say. You’ve got to roll with the punches. But here’s what happens: Women are told they can’t show emotion; they’re told not to stand up for female staff when inappropriate remarks are made. In other words many of the characteristics that make our interviewee (and possibly you) a successful museum leader–compassion, passion, clarity of thought, cooperation–are the same characteristics that despite success and promotions are not actually valued, but instead are used to target women.

“How can we begin to identify patterns if we can’t talk about them?” our interviewee asked. “When are we going to admit that our internal practices are a problem?” Sadly, her experience with 21st-century bias and harassment didn’t end when she left her full time position. In fact, the museum recruitment process delivered another complex set of challenges. While search firms and museums talked about diversity and inclusion, she describes her journey as “Making it to the end, but not to the choice.” Recruiters told her what to wear for final stage interviews, asked for previous W-2’s as proof of salary, made biased statements regarding work she’d previously undertaken, and allowed board interviewers to ask about her marital status and children. Perhaps most telling, both the recruiters and the museum kept pressing our interviewee for a vision. Could she have come up with a meaningless one-liner? Certainly. Did she? Not really. Reflecting on it today, she says, “This isn’t how I work. I would have spent a year watching and listening, and then we [she and her new organization] would create a vision together.”

Please don’t dismiss that last bit as the whining of a disgruntled applicant who didn’t get the job. That’s not the point. What’s important is her statement “This is not how I work,” because it’s how many women work. Studies show that women lean toward flat, task-focused, collaborative organizational structures. Men, on the other hand, lean toward the transactional and hierarchical, with a focus on performance and competition. Ignorance regarding these issues makes for a clumsy, biased hiring process.

Museums and heritage organizations shell out tons of money to recruitment firms. And even if they don’t use a firm, the entire process of hiring takes time and therefore money. If you’re going to pay a firm, shouldn’t you receive transparent, equitable guidance? People who will help your board not ask women whether their husband will allow them to move? Yes, our interviewee did get that question. No, she didn’t go up in flames. But honestly. Has the needle moved at all?

This brings us back to the initial question. If we don’t talk about these things because we hope for promotion, don’t want to be a trouble maker or anticipate a future job search, how can we change anything? As I’ve said too often on these pages, bias and harassment is often delivered in a thousand tiny ways that constantly reinforce who has power and who doesn’t. It’s not just the province of men. Women do it too. And for those of us who are white and cisgender, there’s a whole other layer of inherent bias we carry with us directed, often implicitly, toward colleagues of color.

The museum field must stand up for women, all women, not just white ones. Can we legislate people’s feelings? No, but as a field we can say what we care about and what we believe in. How can AAM have a Code of Conduct that applies only to its annual conferences, but not to its membership?

Going forward:

  • Understand what implicit bias or second-generation discrimination in the workplace looks like. It’s not only inappropriate touching or racially charged language. It’s the death of a thousand cuts, and the odds are, you have colleagues of color and/or female colleagues who are experiencing the effects of it.
  • Support your friends and colleagues. If you hear hate or inappropriate speech, say something.
  • Learn to recognize your own biases. If you find yourself admiring your male boss who roars, but not the female leader who roars, ask why. Emotion is emotion. Why is women’s tied to hormones and men’s to courage?
  • Ask yourself what you can risk to support others. This is a small, tight field. Becoming a leader is a tricky business. If you’re the person known for saying the emperor has no clothes, will you ever get promoted? Are you counting on someone else to be that person?
  • Find resources and participate through Gender Equity in Museum’s Movement (GEMM); Museum Hue, Incluseum; AAM, AASLH, AIC, and other national, regional, and state professional associations.

Joan Baldwin

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One Comment on “Bias by a Thousand Cuts: A True Story”

  1. […] Bias by a Thousand Cuts: A True Story → […]


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