Of Pink Collar Professions and Museum Pay

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Although I hate the idea of March being the only month when women are the lead topic, it is an opportunity, so here goes. First, I want to acknowledge the hard work of my colleagues at GEMM (the Gender Equity in Museums Movement) in publishing its second white paper, Museums as a Pink Collar Profession.

GEMM’s paper poses some complex questions about our field. Among other things, it asks whether our long struggle with poor pay has its roots in issues of deep-seated bias, in many cases, benevolent bias. And, it asks whether that bias produced today’s workforce. I suspect the answer is yes.

In 1973 when the Women’s Caucus organized for the first time at AAM’s Annual Meeting, most of its participants were white. Today, some might identify as LGBTQ, but not then. Being out at work wasn’t always safe in 1973. The Caucus’s goals were simple and to be honest not dissimilar from GEMM’s today—support museum women, see them in positions of leadership, close the pay gap, work for decent benefits including maternity leave.

Although I can’t peer into the Caucus’s heads at a distance of 45 years, I’m pretty sure they weren’t thinking about women of color when they made their pitch to AAM. It may be due to the abysmal numbers of women of color in the field in 1973. It may also be due to the world they lived in and the baggage they carried. But they opened the door. They created a platform where the rest of us–white women, women of color, the LGBTQ community, and those with disabilities–stand advocating for workplace equity.

But to return to the white paper: Today, after 46 years, the museum world’s workforce is almost equally balanced for gender. Hooray.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2018 women comprised 49.5-percent of museum workers . That’s the good news. The bad news is it’s still a very white profession. Overall, the BLS tells us, 10.5-percent of museum workers are black, and 13.8-percent Latinx, neither approaching the national averages of 13.4-percent and 18-percent respectively, particularly since too often people of color serve museums in positions where they have responsibility but not authority.

Pause for a minute, and think about how decades of poor pay affects museum workers. According to the BLS, in 2017 a museum worker’s median pay was $48,000/yr. That is significantly below the average American’s 2017 median income of $59,039. And it’s likely not the first time it’s happened since 1973. Are there consequences for decades of low pay? Yes. One result is the field’s long slow slide toward becoming a pink collar profession.

Another may be that engaged, smart, creative folks leave when they realize that after taxes, graduate school loans, rent, and childcare there isn’t much left. What does that mean for the workforce? Clearly it affects diversity: You need to be privileged, whether by birth, marriage or both to invest in graduate school and then accept salaries and benefits of less-than.

Poor pay puts a strain on workers. It also keeps people in the field too long. Many must continue working to make retirement more than an exercise in how not to finish life in poverty. Think I’m kidding? If you don’t make much, you don’t have much to put away. Then there is the gender pay gap. If the median salary for all museum workers in 2017 was $48K, then, accounting for the pay gap, for white women it was $36, 000. But the gender pay gap isn’t just about white women vs white men. It’s also about age, education, and most importantly race, so the gap for Black women is 39-percent, for Latinx women 47-percent.

There is plenty to say about the museum workplace that isn’t about gender. And there’s plenty to say about gender that’s true for women everywhere, not just museum land. The gender gap exists everywhere. Statistics show women value job flexibility more than men, perhaps because women are still the primary care givers, whether for children or elderly family members. As a result they often accept lower pay rates in exchange for increased flexibility at work. Has this struggle for enough time–time to have a child, time to raise a child, or time to care for a sick family member–artificially depressed wages? And given our money-conscious society, do the museum world’s low wages devalue our profession?

So what are we left with? We have a workplace perilously close to majority female overall, and already dominant female in many positions, and we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that occupations with more women pay less. We have a workplace created, benignly, benevolently in some cases, with a minefield of road blocks. The entrance ticket is a graduate degree. Once in the door, you discover a world where salaries are often confidential, with employees unaware that others in similar roles might receive far higher pay. You may suspect there’s a gender pay gap at your institution, but have no way to find out. You may uncover a world of staff offices and meeting rooms that are far more traditional, hierarchical, and patriarchal than you anticipated or could have imagined. You may find yourself sweetly, kindly, mansplained through staff meetings or told not to make a fuss if you experience bias because of your race or your gender or both.

Can the field change? We’d like to think so.

If you’re an individual:

  • Be knowledgeable about museum salaries: Read Museums as a Pink Collar Profession. Know what it costs to live in your area, Use the AAM salary survey and know what others in your position make.
  • Read your organization’s HR/personnel policy. Know what it means to you if you want to go back to school, become a parent, or need to care for an elderly relative.
  • Know what to do if you’re harassed at work. Will you be supported?
  • Stand up for your colleagues. #Enoughisenough

If you’re an organization:

  • Do an equity salary audit. Look for inequities based on age, race, gender and power. Think about the relationship between the executive director’s salary and the lowest FT staff member. Solve these equity issues first. Raises are meaningless if they perpetuate the pay gap.
  • Create a value statement about how your museum or heritage organization expects its employees to behave. Stand behind it.
  • Review your HR/personnel policy. Does it reflect your whole staff or just some of them?
  • Stand up for your staff. And if you’re the organization that pays equitable wages, say so. How different would that be in a job advertisement?

Let’s not wait another 11 months to talk about women’s issues in the museum workplace. They’re here, they’re now. Nowhere are they more obvious than the paycheck, which is tangible proof of bias and inequity. Let’s change that.

Joan Baldwin

 

 

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3 Comments on “Of Pink Collar Professions and Museum Pay”

  1. Kristine says:

    I’m fully supportive of salary transparency and working to increase museum wages, but I think one of the statistics you provided is misleading. You mentioned that the median pay for museum workers is $48,000, “significantly below” the median American income of $59,000. This seemed high and I could not find it cited by BLS. Is $59,000 perhaps the median household income (rather than individual)?

    • Jason says:

      Yes, it appears the median income of archivist/curator is $48,000 while the median household income is $59,000. So it doesn’t quite demonstrate the point, as 2 adults working in museums would be at $94,000 median household income. But the museum wage itself is skewed because there are LOTS more jobs than curator.

  2. Jason & Kristine:
    You are correct. It was wrong the first time, but when the whole piece was re-posted for AAM, we fixed the problem. One issue was we needed to compare museum work with other jobs demanding a bachelor’s and master’s degree. Here is that section from AAM’s web posting:

    But pay issues continue to affect museum workers, as they have for decades. According to the BLS, in 2017 a museum worker’s median pay was $48,000/yr. That is significantly below the 2017 median incomes of $60,996, for bachelor’s degree holders, and $72,852, for master’s degree holders. And it’s likely not the first time it’s happened since 1973.

    Joan Baldwin


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