Recognizing Stereotypes in the Museum Workplace: Necessary or Not?

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There is a scene in an old Woody Allen movie where Mr. Allen and a tall, chic woman sit on a bench in Central Park, and comment on everyone who walks by. No, it’s not nice, but years before the words implicit bias were everywhere, it highlights the social stereotyping taking place when we look at our fellow humans. Every day we process, consider and judge. That’s what humans do. This week I posted an article titled How Gender Stereotypes Can Kill a Woman’s Self Confidence on the Leadership Matters Facebook page. The reaction to it, like Mr. Allen’s pigeon-holing scene, underscored the contradictions of women and work.

As the article’s title suggests, there are a host of workplace stereotypes that women navigate from pay—yes, nothing has changed about the gender pay gap—to parenting, to being liked, to how we dress, to being angry. The question Anne Ackerson and I encountered time and again when writing, and then subsequently talking about Women in the Museum is should these stereotypes matter? Variations of this question include: Why should I be blamed for the way other people think about women? Why should I have to dress, marry or have children to meet some unnamed standard? And most complex, why should I tailor my behavior to comply with absurdist, Stepford-like assumptions about women?

There are plenty of folks who believe all the restrictions and stereotyping placed on women in the workplace is bunk, and shouldn’t matter. In a perfect world, that’s true. In a perfect world museum workplaces would be human-centered, and equitably paid. But I have news: We’re not there yet, and there are plenty of folks, whether trustees who grew up in another era, big time donors who live in gilded bubbles, earnest volunteers, or our colleagues, whose places in the enlightenment circle may be different than our own, but we work with them. We make decisions, we share common goals in running museums. Their lack of enlightenment may bother us more than them, and occasionally they say hurtful things. Sometimes their expectations, often built on stereotypes, are the polar opposite of ours, and when we don’t live up to those imagined stereotypes, we’re trapped. And sometimes punished.

So…is it important for museum women to know where the mine fields are? My answer is yes. Eleanor Roosevelt, who probably knew a bit about being stereotyped, wrote, “If someone betrays you once, it’s their fault; if they betray you twice, it’s your fault.” So the first time an older trustee says that a pretty little thing like you ought to be married or when your male colleagues interrupt your thoughts during a meeting or leave you to do the scut work while they engage in deep conversations, forgive yourself. It’s the first time, and maybe you didn’t see it coming. But be self-aware enough that if it happens again, you’ve thought it through and know how to react.

If you’re a woman leader, you have two issues: First to be aware of social stereotyping for yourself, and second, to model a nimble, human-centered workplace for your staff.

If you’re a leader, consider…

  • Creating a value-driven workplace. Make your museum’s value statement widely available to visitors, staff and board so everyone understands there is an expected code of behavior on your campus.
  • Keeping your HR policies up to date, and reading them periodically so you are current on how your organization confronts problem behavior.
  • Being conscious of how gender plays out in staff meetings: Do men talk more than women? Do women allow men to talk more? Why? Because they’re weary and it’s easier to let men blather and then cut to the chase afterwards? Or because there are power differences and being silent is self protection?
  • Remembering everyone is intersectional and few problems define themselves solely around gender. They may be overlaid with race, age, class, and looks or some horrible Gordian knot of many issues at once, so try not to reduce a problem to something too simple.
  • If you’re concerned about a staff member, ask. Help your team members find ways to navigate a professional identity separate from the ways they may be stereotyped.
  • As we know all too well, words matter, and it’s a hot second from what one person deems a harmless remark or a joke to another’s breaking point. Don’t let gender stereotyping hurt your team.

If you’re a women in a leadership position:

  • Remember that you, like other women in your museum or heritage organization, likely don’t get paid equitably. Can you use your power and position to lead a pay equity audit?
  • If you’re a parent, remember that studies show parents, including men, are further penalized salary-wise and reputation. If that’s you, how can you change the culture in your organization?
  • Consider that women who are perceived as competent are frequently not liked. Be aware of the likability penalty you face.
  • Women are penalized for being angry at work because it violates a stereotype. Studies show women are rewarded for being sad, but anger doesn’t gain them anything, and in many cases it penalizes them. How will you model navigating skills so your staff sees you as authentic, someone with real emotions, but not reap the anger penalty?

What stereotypes have you encountered? How have you dealt with them? And most importantly, what will help museum workplaces move from gendered to human-centered?

Stay safe,

Joan Baldwin


One Comment on “Recognizing Stereotypes in the Museum Workplace: Necessary or Not?”

  1. Becky says:

    Joan, this is such an important topic and one on which I am currently reflecting regularly. There are two areas of interest I would love to see you expand upon:

    1. My organization has a female board president and a female director (me) for the first time in its history and we face regular criticism that we are “joined at the hip” and that our museum is a “sorority,” which I find demeaning to our productive relationship. Have you – or any other readers – faced such characterizations in response to a female president-director relationship, and how have you navigated such situations?

    2. Looking at the museum field more broadly, I am heartened to see a number of capable women elected to leadership positions of prestigious institutions (NMAH, NGA, etc). Do others dread a potentially looming inflection point at which there will be considered “enough” female directors, thus limiting the possibilities for other females to join the ranks? If I see a woman under 50 in a director position, I assume that I will not be a desirable candidate for that position should she vacate it, since I occupy the same demographic, for example. Does anyone else feel that way?

    Thanks for keeping us thinking, as always!


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