Bias, Ageism & the Museum WorkplacePosted: July 8, 2019
In a lot of small ways work is like school. We do it because most of us have to. Some do well; some not so well. And it’s a place where, like it or not, our likes and dislikes are frequently on display. As leaders, you need to make everyone feel valued, wanted and needed. You need to banish your own biases so others can and will too.
One of the hardest things about workplace bias–and I say this from my place as a white woman of a certain age and privilege–is to flip what you pay attention to. If you continually look for the source of your hurt–the colleague who reminds you that you are over weight, disabled, LGBTQ, a woman, really tall, a person of color or some combination of all those things– you’ll find it. That’s called confirmation bias. You may feel momentarily better about feeling bad, but will your interactions with problem co-workers change? Probably not.
Please note: I do not, under any circumstances, want to diminish the effects of bias. Implicit or explicit, it is hurtful, demeaning, and isolating. It diverts focus, and it shouldn’t be allowed. But we work with humans. And we’re all needy.
Having said that, I want to talk about being old(er) in the museum workplace. Depending on your age, older could be 40, but for this post, let’s assume older is Boomers, members of your staff born between 1946 and 1964. First of all, in case you haven’t noticed there are a lot of Boomers, 77 million to be exact, and while 10,000 retire every day, many Boomers have inadequate savings for retirement, and need or want to work longer. So, if you’re the typical museum leader your staff will likely include Millennials (currently the largest segment of the workforce), Gen-Xers and Boomers, and range in age from early 20s to early 70’s. That means every time you gather for a meeting you’re bridging a 60-year life experience gap, not to mention differences in approach to work. When many Boomers came of age, they expected to find a job, get promoted, settle down, and 35 or 40 years later, say goodbye to colleagues, and retire. Millennials may have as many as a dozen jobs throughout their careers. Coaxing these groups into teams, building respect, and parking bias at the door is a challenge.
So do Boomers experience ageism? The short answer is yes. If you’re unfamiliar with this, here are some common examples:
- She should retire already. Alternately known as “When is she going to retire so I can get promoted?” Let’s bust that myth by asking why one generation’s work needs supersede another’s? People between 55 and 75 continue to work for personal fulfillment and financial gain. While there is opportunity to retire, there is no rule that says you have to.
- She can’t use a Google doc. Shouldn’t that be a requirement? As hard as it is to understand some days, our lives aren’t all about IT savvy. And if a Boomer needs to use a Google doc–in fact, if everyone does, then make it a requirement, and teach everyone. Don’t equate tech savvy with museum or heritage organization savvy unless you’re hiring for IT.
- She couldn’t even remember the phone code. Maybe she’s got Alzheimers. All of our heads are clogged with too many numbers and passwords. Further, it’s a fact that over time, a full mind impacts short term memory like remembering a number or password. It’s ageist to assume that not being able to remember one of the gazillion numbers or codes the modern workplace requires is a symptom of a serious disease associated with aging.
- If we’re going to hire, I’d rather have someone younger who’ll have more energy. Every life chapter comes with issues, and being under-40 may mean there are other drains on a person’s time–children, training for a marathon, finding a partner, getting married–that a later-in-life employee will have passed through. Energy and focus are individual characteristics. If you hire for passion and energy, you’ll get it regardless of age. And P.S., according to the AARP, not getting hired is the most common type of age discrimination.
What if you are an older employee:
- There’s a law that protects you: The Age Discrimination in Employment Act. While it differs from state to state, and it applies only to workplaces with more than 20 employees, it prohibits age discrimination in decisions about hiring, firing, layoffs, pay, benefits, promotions, demotions, performance reviews or any other condition of employment.
- Don’t act old: I mean that in the kindest way. Don’t come to work and act as though you wish you were home in your La-Z-Boy. (Actually, that’s true for everyone, but it fulfills every stereotype when someone over 55 does it.) Continue learning, read widely, engage, engage, engage. You and everyone around you will be better for it.
- Don’t use your past experience as the reason not to try something new. If you’re over 55, how many times have you felt younger colleagues eye-roll when you launch into a story about the time your museum tried a variation of the thing your Millennial co-worker just suggested. The operative word here is “try.” Ask the questions that you wish someone had asked the last time this particular program, exhibit, or idea was launched, and then go with it. Listen, participate. Ask more questions and use the teachable moment to its best advantage.
- Be humble, and steer away from age-centered comments. Don’t try to bridge the age-gap by talking about your 30-year old niece. Your colleagues don’t need to know they remind you of much younger relatives or children.
- Be wise, not a know it all. With age comes the ability to synthesize. The more information you have in your brain, the more you can detect patterns. Be the person who (gently) helps co-workers see the big picture.
So for those of you who aren’t Boomers, the next time you’re feeling the need to eye roll in a meeting as that guy drones on or that older woman dithers, remember, age is egalitarian. Unless you die young, some day you’ll find yourself the oldest person in the room. So grow some empathy, and learn to work with everyone.