Museum Women, Working, and COVID-19

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It’s been a while since I’ve written about gender and the museum world, and as we enter week nine of the COVID-19 pandemic, here are a few things I’ve been thinking about:

First, if you think sexual harassment in the museum world is over, because everyone’s working from home or furloughed, it isn’t. 

We’re undoubtedly looking towards a post-COVID future where job competition will be furious. Anxiety never brings out the best in people, and stringent budgets combined with a tight job market does not lend itself toward a humane workplace. Just last week Art News reported on sexism and racism allegations at the Akron Museum of Art. The article, which suggests the museum’s Executive Director Mark Masuoka and another senior administrator, Jennifer Shipman, were responsible for allowing an atmosphere of discrimination to flourish. And remember the news at the Erie Museum of Art when the board realized who it had hired? That was only four months ago. The good news is that in both cases it was the boards, not museum leadership, who seem to appreciate the dire consequences of a troubled workplace. For Akron, there are allegations that management used the pandemic to eliminate whistleblower employees who had previously complained about sexual harassment. People who are threatened will deflect any way they can, using the it’s–not–me–it’s–the–pandemic excuse. But workplaces that were humane before COVID-19 will remain humane. Those that weren’t are likely to be challenging places to work especially if you’re a woman. Side note: Without wading into the politics of Tara Reid’s complaint against presidential candidate Joe Biden, there is a lesson in her narrative for all women in today’s workplace. If you are sexually harassed at work or even if something unsettling happens to you, write it down. In pen, on paper, with dates for each and every incident, the old fashioned way. You may not be ready to talk, you may not have processed what’s happened to you, but get your thoughts down in the moment, and put them in a safe place. 

Second, there is no doubt this pandemic hit women harder than men. 

Economists quipped that the 2008 Recession was a Mancession because some 70-percent of job losses happened to men. This time, the COVID-19 pandemic hit women hard. In fact, women haven’t experienced a double-digit unemployment rate since the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) began reporting job loss by gender in the 1940s. April’s rates for women were 16.2-percent. We can’t say what the job loss is for museum women because curiously of all the folks reporting, from AAM to the regional service agencies, no one seems to be collecting data based on gender. What does that tell you?

We do know two things, however: First, much as we’d like to think the museum workplace is different from regular offices filled with cubicles and Steve Carell-like characters, it’s not. So if the national data tells us women working in the hospitality and recreation industries are the worst hit, it’s likely museum women are too. In addition, we know that 40-percent of households earning less than $40,000 experienced at least one job loss in March. The BLS tells us museum employees have a median salary of $48,000, so how do you think museum women fared? In addition, it’s women who shoulder the brunt of child or elder care, home schooling and many home chores. According to a recent survey by Syndio, 14-percent of women thought about quitting their jobs in the last two months simply to relieve the pressure of being teacher, day care coordinator, working person, and household manager. 

Last, what did the pandemic teach us, and what could we possibly change as we try to ready museums and heritage organizations to open in a socially-distanced world with a vicious virus lurking in the background?

First, we know that pre-COVID-19, women made up 50.1-percent of all museum workers.[1] We also know that in the museum world’s highly pink-collar employment, men and women cluster on gendered lines, with women filling education departments, while men are more often grouped in exhibit design, leadership, and plant operations. And we know the same problems that plague the national employment market, bedevil the museum world: There is a gender pay gap; health insurance–if it’s offered–is tied to employment; childcare is ridiculously expensive; many employees do not receive paid sick leave; and many women (and some men) would benefit by more flexible hours to accommodate family responsibilities. 

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So, as you restart your organizational engines, here are some things to remember about women returning to your workplace:

  1. Working from home doesn’t have to be confined to pandemics. Within your organizational culture, how can virtual work be structured so employees working from home still feel connected to your organization? How about flextime? Often women are responsible for getting a family–children or elders–ready to begin the day. Breakfasts, lunch to go, dressing and commuting to school, daycare or appointments take time. Would it help women (or primary parents) in your organization to begin and end the work day at times that support their schedule while still providing the organization with the agreed upon time?
  2. Women are paid less. You don’t have to believe me. Read AAUW and the Center for American Progress. Isn’t it time your organization did an equity pay audit, and raised women’s salaries?
  3. How many organizations let frontline staff go during the virus because within the organizational culture they have one skill set? Can you change your museum culture so that all hourly staff are cross trained? How would things look if hourly staff had a primary task, say, elementary school tours, coupled with a secondary task working elsewhere, not just in emergencies, but always?
  4. Daycare is frighteningly expensive. According to the Center for American Progress, the average cost of infant daycare in the United States averages $1,230/month, and for a preschool child, $800/month. What are the demographics of your staff? Are many of them parents? When you hear griping about salaries remember some of them may shoulder childcare costs equal to a mortgage. In an ideal world, large museums would have their own daycares. Failing that, would your museum consider a partnership with a local day care? Your education department provides an agreed upon amount of programming, and your staff get a discount. 
  5. One thing the pandemic has taught us: viruses spread and sick people should stay home. Staff without paid time off are either forced to take unpaid leave or to come to work sick. Even before COVID-19, illnesses at work affect large numbers of staff. According to Kaiser Health News, “The lower likelihood of paid sick leave for part-time workers has a disproportionate impact on women, who are more likely than men to hold part-time jobs…… Nine in ten (91%) workers in financial activities have paid sick leave, compared to less than half of workers in leisure and hospitality (48%) and accommodation and food services (45%).” The Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires employers with less than 500 staff to provide two weeks paid leave for sick employees, and two-thirds regular pay for those caring for someone who’s sick. If you don’t already offer paid time off, is that something you can institute? 

Environmentalist Bill McKibben says the dumbest thing we can do post-COVID is to set up the bowling pins in exactly the same way. How will you make change in your workforce, and how will it support 50.1-percent of your staff?

Stay well and stay safe,

Joan Baldwin

[1] Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employed persons by detailed industry, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity. 2019. bls.gov/cps/cpsaat18.htm. Accessed May 18, 2020.

Image: New York Times


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