Museum Leadership, Bias, and Pay

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Nobody wants to be called biased, particularly in the workplace. These days bias conjures more than just partiality or favoritism, and points directly at “prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another.” It would be close to impossible to be a responsible museum leader and be biased. Prejudice and partiality aren’t in anybody’s top five leadership competencies. So if displaying bias isn’t a behavior anybody claims, why talk about it? Because we all own some. It is not reserved for our political or ideological enemies or people we don’t like.

There are two types of bias: implicit and explicit. Explicit bias bubbles through our consciousness when we feel threatened. It helps us explain the universe by pigeon-holing and stereotyping people and their behavior. We can name it because it’s there, part of who we are, how we’re imprinted as children, and the values we hold. Implicit bias, on the other hand, affects our unconscious self in ways we’re not aware of, making it sometimes much more lethal then its noisier, brash cousin. A biased statement is out there for the world to hear or read. A decision driven by implicit bias is hidden and often unexplained.

This week, Leadership Matters goes to Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania to deliver the keynote at the Federation of Pennsylvania Museums’ annual meeting. Our topic: Gender and Leadership. Before you eye-roll and think “Good Lord, haven’t we covered that?” just stop. Because there’s one place in every museum or heritage organization that is the nexus of gender, implicit bias, and leadership. What’s that, you ask? Your payroll. Unless and until you’ve completed an equity audit, and then adjusted wages for places where there are inequities, that’s the place where–to mix metaphors entirely–your chickens come home to roost. That’s the place where all the bad decision making, suspicion, anger, and dislike lives. It’s also where admiration, pity, gratitude, and hope reside, brought to you by implicit bias.

Imagine you do an equity audit at your museum: you may discover that two under-forty, full-time employees, one male and one female, have wildly divergent wages. For the sake of argument, let’s say she is a curator and a woman of color, and he is an education curator and a white man. In your organizational chart both are on the same level, both hired within months of each other, both with comparable experience. Both report to you and are part of the leadership team.

And let’s say you weren’t director when they were hired in 2011. Someone else did that. In addition, both have used your newly-revised personnel policy to take maternity/paternity leaves recently. What might you find? First, the man’s salary is $62,500; the woman’s $45,500. That’s better than the average African American woman who makes 61-percent of a white man’s salary, but it’s nothing to be proud of. Second, when you look at their salary history, he received a small bump within a year of his paternity leave. She took maternity leave at almost the same time–yes, that was a rough year– and when she returned, following annual personnel reviews, no bump. This too fits with a Harvard study where women pay a financial penalty for being parents, but men do not. In fact, men with children are considered more hirable than men without children. Women with children, on the other hand, are less likely to get hired, and less likely to be promoted. The same Harvard study shows women with children were considered less committed to their jobs then women without children.

Granted, this is an imaginary scenario, but it’s there to help you understand how unconscious bias takes root. One prejudicial decision regarding race, gender, parenthood,  weight, LGBTQ, or disability lives forever in payroll, and unless there’s an equity adjustment, it will still be there decades later when the employee retires. Your job as a leader is to work with your board to examine and correct these problems. Otherwise what’s the point of your mission statement and all the other spin that comes off mission? What’s the point of “serving diverse audiences” if your own workforce is discriminated against?

What should you do?

  • Read and understand the pay gap and its history.
  • Don’t tell yourself you’re not racist and then allow the gender/race gap to persist in your workplace.
  • Educate staff and board about why the pay gap is a problem and what needs to change at your institution.
  • Do an equity audit. Evaluate your payroll. Look for the gaps. Make a plan for adjustment. Act on it.
  • Look at your parental leave policy. (If you don’t have one, make one.) FMLA or the Family Medical Leave Act is not pay. It’s a place holder. Make sure staff isn’t penalized for parenting.
  • Pat yourself on the back and celebrate with your board if you discover your pay scale is equitable.

It’s a rare individual who’s self-aware enough, who’s done enough soul searching, who realizes the ways in which she’s privileged, and the ways others are not, and who can shed enough load to come to workplace situations unbiased. But we can all try. Payroll is a place where we can change the museum workplace. Just do it.

Joan Baldwin

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