Making the Moral Argument for Museum Pay

Marabou_Museum_Funding

How much time do you want for your progress? James Baldwin

One of the panels I participated in at AASLH’s 2019 Annual Conference was on pay.  Titled “Advocating for Equity: How to Talk About Salaries in Your Museum,” it offered participants small group discussions through the lens of race, gender, salary negotiation, and emerging careers. In the end, however, many of the discussions came back to questions of inadequate pay, and what to do about it individually and organizationally.

Museums and heritage organizations aren’t known for their excellent salaries. In fact, given that a master’s degree is the de rigueur entrance ticket for most positions, compared to other fields also requiring graduate degrees, the museum world lags behind. And as we’ve said many times here, poor pay and lousy benefits create a workforce that is stressed rather than focused, competitive rather than collegial, not particularly diverse, and constantly looking for better opportunities rather than devoted to their current organization. All those things–stress, inter-personal competition, lack of diversity, and job seeking are money losers for employers, and yet when asked about regrettable salaries, boards and museum leadership often respond that they can’t. They just can’t. They’re doing the best they can, and frankly, if you don’t like your salary, there’s the door.

When we presented the “Advocating for Equity” panel we were lucky to have two museum directors in the room. There may have been more, but those two self-identified. One worked with his board to create an endowment for salaries which will come into its own in 2020. The other is just beginning the process. Listening to both of them, one thing was clear: adjusting salaries on a grand scale isn’t something you’re going to solve in a couple of meetings. The director who has already raised the endowment underscored the patience and restraint the project took. His board is large, and not all agreed salaries were a problem, but for this director and his board leadership, the salary question had become a moral question. He didn’t like the idea that smart, creative, double-degreed, 30-year old members of his front-line staff were forced to live with their parents because their salaries wouldn’t stretch to an apartment in his city. For the other director, who works at a very wealthy institution with an enviable endowment, his concerns were as much about equity as simple raises, but here too, morals and values play a part. Although his institution is still in the planning stages, he indicated that in all likelihood raises would be phased in, with the first ones going to those who make the least. Again, a judgement call.

Are you mentally eye rolling? Is there a little voice in your head saying, “They’ll never, ever go for it. And is this what I want to build my leadership on? What about the new wing? What about Mrs. Buckets of Money? She likes building. She even has an architect.” All that’s probably true. There are plenty of one-percenters who’d rather give to build than endow people. And yet it’s people who will animate, care for, and program Mrs. Buckets of Money’s yet-to-be-built building. Here are some things to ponder when thinking about moving the needle on pay:

  • Increasing pay takes planning. Know what you don’t know. Who sets pay? How often are salaries adjusted? Have your organization’s salaries kept pace with inflation, the field, other similar fields? When did they start to lag? Why?
  • Unless you’re a founding director, you inherited a pay scale. When was the last time you looked at your entire pay scale from grounds, cleaners, and security to the top? Assuming you have an HR department and/or a CFO, work together to create a spreadsheet of all job titles (no names), education, race, gender, length of service, and hourly rate. What does it tell you?
  • Using your newly-created spread sheet, you’ll know whether you have a gender or race pay gap. Is that a moral issue for you or your board? Remember, raising inequitable salaries perpetuates bias we need to leave behind.
  • Know what it costs to live in your area. Know the median rent. Know the living wage.
  • If you lead a large and/or urban institution, has your board discussed its concerns regarding unionization? Again, have you done your homework? What will the union offer that you’re not providing? Could you provide it? Does staff asking for a union trust your museum’s leadership? If not, why not?
  • If you’re a leader, sound out your board. Are there some members who agree your organization’s pay is abysmal and it should do something? Are they willing to make change?
  • Last, is your board comfortable with moral questions? Pay isn’t just about money. Pay represents so many other things: It represents where you are in the institutional decision-making process; It represents who you rub shoulders with; It determines where you can live, the car you drive, and how fast you pay off student debt; It provides a sense of self-worth. Boards are traditionally made up of wealthy people who support an institution by donating money, knowledge about money, connections, intelligence and decision-making experience. When it comes to salaries, your job may be to remind your board what they don’t know–about student debt, about the cost of living in your locale, about how your museum or heritage organization fits into your community’s job picture, and most importantly, about the gender/race pay gap.

These discussions aren’t easy. Change is always hard. But this is about museums wanting to create equitable workplaces where women of color — from Latinx who make 53 cents for every white man’s dollar to American Indians who make 58 cents, and Black women who make 61 cents* — make the same amount for the same job as a white man. Museums and heritage organizations may waffle about taking a stand on community issues, even on historical or cultural issues, but how about starting inside, with your own workforce? How about taking a stand for them? Invest in your staff. They pay you back every day.

Joan Baldwin

*American Association of University Women, “The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap.” 

Image: From Marabou at the Museum“Money Makes the Museum Doors Open: Museum Funding 101,” September 6, 2018.


3 Comments on “Making the Moral Argument for Museum Pay”

  1. Thanks for this post & the update on the AAM session on salaries.

    Serendipitously, if that can be a word, MuseumsEtc has today announced the upcoming publication of a collection of essays titled For Love or Money: Confronting the State of Museum Salaries. See the announcement at https://museumsetc.com/products/for-love-of-money-confronting-the-state-of-museum-salaries that offers a .

    I have not seen any of the other chapters except my own “Decent Working Conditions are Essential for Decent Compensation.” However, the list of 24 chapter titles range from “Setting Salaries: A Perspective on Practice” through “Passion as Play: The Widespread Effects of Staff Turnover,” “Making Salaries a Priority for Museum Boards,” to “Financial Resources for Pay Equity, Visitor Experience, and Public
    Value.”

    We have reading & subsequent work to do on the museum salary injustice dilemma. Solve it by beginning activism now, or suffer with it for the rest of our careers.


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