At the Intersection of Gender and Power

Not Ready to Make Nice: Guerrilla Girls in the Art World and Beyond, Installation View, Krannert Museum, 2014

Last week I spoke with a young woman. She contacted me because she was dealing with a situation of sexual harassment at work, and she didn’t know what to do. What she recounted was an all-too familiar scenario of a female museum employee being harassed by an older, wealthy, white man. This man does not work for her museum, but his wealth makes him important. He has donated before, and her museum anticipates he may again, so her organization wants him treated with kid gloves. Her team leaders, her director, and even HR, asked her to look the other way, to essentially take one for the team. In the meantime, she is supposed to come to work, do her job, do it well, all while waiting for this individual to appear on Zoom as part of a public program, to send her notes at work, and otherwise insert himself in her life in a predatory, sleazy and unwelcome way.

I have no doubt that at some point this young woman will leave her job because her museum has made it clear this individual’s money and his giving potential are worth more than her well being. I hope she doesn’t leave the field, but I wouldn’t blame her if she did. Would you stay if your museum tacitly asked you to prostitute yourself in exchange for a gift? And not even an actual gift, for the potential of a gift. And most damning of all? The director of her museum, and her direct reports are women. There is a sense that the power of the sisterhood should prevail, but perhaps access to money and power trumps empathy and understanding. And please don’t say it’s not like that. It IS like that, and most importantly, that’s what it feels like to be her right now, and no employee in a museum or anywhere else should feel they need to compromise their values and their selfhood to do their job.

I wish this were the first time I had heard this story, but it’s not. When Anne Ackerson and I completed the manuscript for Women in the Museum, we began speaking about women’s issues in the museum workplace at national and regional meetings. In fairness, #MeToo and Ronan Farrow were still a year away. At the time, though, we heard stories of the proverbial board member who sat next to the young, female director at meetings so he could touch her, and none of his fellow board members interfered. We heard about a wealthy male donor who coupled his predatory attitude with racist remarks to a young BIPOC employee. When she looked to her direct reports for support, it was the same story. He was too important to chastise. And we heard about a young woman working in advancement who was told explicitly by her bosses to dress a certain way when she visited older, male donors. We heard about BIPOC staff asked to trade sex for a better position, and about a newly-professional employee cyber-stalked by trustees.

Many of you reading this are horrified, and rightly so. Some of you may say, well, that’s not my institution. Maybe, but do your employees know where to go and how to navigate claims of sexual harassment? Some of you may feel we’re past all that, suggesting the issues we are dealing with today are issues of systemic racism. True, but it’s systemic racism mixed with power and hierarchy, and the thing about many of these incidents is they aren’t about attraction between equals. They depend on one party using power and fear to coerce and intimidate the other. Two things to remember: gender harassment isn’t like a childhood disease society had once and got over. It’s always there. And second, for women of color, it’s another layer of insult. So where are you in all of this? What would you do if your museum had to decline a substantial gift because accepting it meant putting staff at risk?

Many of the museums that end up in the news because of racist or sexist behavior get there because at the center, at their very core, there’s no sense of what they believe in. I’m not talking about mission. If you’re going to ask for money, either public or private, you better be able to express what it is you do for the public and why, but funders don’t ask about organizational values. They don’t ask what happens if a young BIPOC staff on the front lines of a heritage organization is berated by a visitor. They don’t ask what happens if a young shop assistant is on the receiving end of inappropriate comments or if a curator is asked about her social life by a much older donor. They don’t ask about the behavior your museum won’t tolerate on its campus, and how you handle visitor, donor or staff behavior that collides with your organizational conscience. In short, they don’t ask about the way your museum moves in the world. Because twinned with your core mission is a sense of values–for some museums it’s written, for a few it’s made public–that makes it clear that on your site, within your buildings, your staff is safe, seen, and supported.

If you Google “museum values statement” mostly what you get is a few blogs–not this one, although I’ve written about this before–and examples of how museums are valuable to their communities. That’s fine, but museums and heritage organizations are communities of people working for the same goals. Shouldn’t they stand behind the same core of beliefs for 40+ hours a week? Will that stop a 60-something man who feels it’s his prerogative to sexually harass young staff members? No,but organizationally, will it give you something to stand behind when you tell them to stop.

For all museum employees who suffer because coming to work places you in the harassment crosshairs, take care of yourself first. Make sure you have support, from family, friends and a counselor to unpack what’s happening. Once again, if you are the victim of workplace sexual harassment, know the law:

If sexual harassment is an ongoing problem at your museum or heritage organization, join Gender Equity in Museums Movement and the 620 folks who’ve signed the pledge. Think how differently the story that begins this post might be if the young woman’s colleagues had signed the pledge. Sexual harassment is intersectional. Working to eliminate it from your museum or heritage organization stops power from being used as a weapon or to quote LaTanya Autry “Normal is broken; normal is oppressive; normal hurts.”

Stay well and stay safe,

Joan Baldwin



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