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:
- Federal law covers workplaces with more than 15 employees. For workplaces with fewer than 15 employees, state law applies.
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,
Applying for a new job is stressful, a time sponge, and from an organizational point of view, costly. For an individual, even if it is done as much to exercise a muscle as out of need, it requires diligence, self-awareness, and confidence. If you interview as female, it’s even more challenging. Why? Because you have to walk a thin line between what you know, what you believe, and public perception.
I’ve spoken to a number of women in the museum and library fields about job interviews. These women aren’t novices. They all lead organizations or departments, and they are well read, not in the book group sense. Rather they read widely about leadership, and they’ve had opportunities to put what they read into practice. Before I go further, here are some givens about men and women in the job race. They are all supported by research, and I’ve included links so you’ll know I’m not just ranting.
- Men think they’re smarter than 66-percent of their peers. For women it’s less so, 54-percent.
- Women don’t think of themselves as ready for promotion and they consistently underestimate their talents. See #1 above.
- A lot of what’s happened in the American workplace has focused on “fixing” women, making them more like successful men, rather than simply leveling the playing field.
- Women are more frequently hired to take over organizations, departments or programs that are troubled than men are.
So what happened to the women I spoke with? These issues came to a head when they were faced with the proverbial interview question about change. It goes something like: “Based on what you’ve seen today, what is your vision for our organization, department, program?” Anybody who’s read anything about leadership knows that rapid change, particularly from a new hire, goes nowhere. These women knew that. Each gave an answer that was a variation of: change takes time, buy-in is important, describing how they like to observe, watch, listen and learn before experimenting, analyzing, testing again, and implementing. None of them got the job. The positions went to men.
Is it possible the men offered less measured and reasoned responses? Is it possible they replied with a laundry list of changes, delivered with a confidence and panache that was just what the interview committee wanted to hear even though few organizations–except the most desperate–can sustain wholesale hierarchical change?
I can imagine you eye-rolling here. How do you know, you ask? And you’re right. There are a million reasons for offering a job to one person over another. But is it possible that boards or hiring committees confuse confidence with competence? That a confident answer even if it flies in the face of every good leadership best practice is more acceptable than a more measured response? And might that be a gendered thing since we know men tend to sound more confident? In fact, if I were asked, going forward, I’d tell each of these women to answer that question differently. I’d tell them to practice sounding confident, responding with a vision statement and a list of areas that need experimentation.
Some final caveats: This isn’t about getting women to act more like men even though it seems that way. Successful women are confident, but the consequences of acting confident are different for men and women. Women are judged differently than men, and therefore answers to the most basic questions are heard differently. Women need to be twice as good to be seen as half as competent. All of this is 10 times harder and more complex for women of color, women who are overweight, women with disabilities, LGBTQ and transgender women because the opportunity for bias multiplies.
And lastly, if you are hiring:
- Remember, an interview is like a wedding. If that’s the happiest day of your life, you’re in trouble. Hire for the long haul, not the razzle dazzle. There are many who ace the interview, but there’s no there there when it comes to real leadership.
- Because the museum field is tipping so precipitously toward becoming a pink collar profession, hiring committees may think they’re doing the field a service by hiring a man. That may be. Just make sure the process is equitable. Tokenism is tokenism no matter who’s in the mix.
- Talk openly about issues of bias–where and how they appear–with your search committee before the process begins. You may want to use a bias exercise to help your committee understand where they are.
- Build a diverse interview committee that includes POC, the young, the experienced. Let the committee discuss its governance rules ahead of time. Make it a safe space where all thoughts are welcome.
- Discuss the difference between diversity and difference. Is your program, department or museum ready for a challenge? See suggestion #2.
- Be open. Remember it’s not just about you. It’s about your organization. Look for the person who will help your museum grow.
Texas may not have originated the phrase “Go big or go home,” but it could have. It’s a big place, bigger than France. Last week Leadership Matters traveled to Houston for the Texas Association of Museums (TAM) annual meeting where we keynoted day two for 550 museum folk from all corners of the state.
None of that is particularly unusual. Both of us speak fairly frequently on either leadership or gender or both. What was odd (and gratifying) was that out of the approximately 65 state, regional or national museum service organizations, it is TAM who chose to make gender equity the focus of its 2018 meeting.
Here on the East Coast, mention Texas and you may get some eye rolling. Folks will tell you that Austin has great music or food, but then conversation may turn to the fact that it’s a place you’re allowed to carry your holstered handgun out in public. Then there’s the weather (hot), and the fact that it might not have any trees. And maybe in the minds of the Metropolitan Museum-going public, it might not have any museums. But it does. Big ones, uber-wealthy ones, tiny historic sites, and major history museums, all nurtured and supported by TAM. And it is the TAM board and staff who chose this year–the year of Post-Weinstein, #MeToo, and #TimesUp– to make gender equity the centerpiece of its meeting. (In 2017 TAM also launched a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion series headlined by Chris Taylor from the Minnesota Historical Society so this isn’t its first foray into challenging workplace issues.)
How bold was this gender equity focus? Pretty bold. Bigger organizations might shy away. Gender equity–despite its relentless focus on closing the pay gap, a gap that according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW) is dramatically worse for Native and Latina women than for black women, and certainly for Asian or white women–has been the after-thought problem in the museum world for 45 years. And this in a year when data shows us that nationally 81-percent of women and 43-percent of men experience sexual harassment in their lifetimes. Some might say that the museum world, with its 46.7-percent female workforce, should sit up and pay attention. That’s how TAM felt, and that’s how we found ourselves speaking to a lunch-time audience in the Hyatt Regency.
Before we went, we launched a survey on Facebook to confirm (or bust) what we believed about gender equity in museums versus working in other job sectors in the United States. As of Sunday 625 humans had taken part. The survey is still open if you’d like to participate. What did we learn? That 62-percent of those folks say they’ve been discriminated against because of their gender. And more alarmingly, that 49-percent have experienced verbal and/or sexual harassment at work. What does this say about the museum field? Haven’t you all had enough? Texas is taking care of its own, but isn’t it time for more museum service agencies to follow the TAM model and stand up and say gender inequity is a bad thing?
Gender inequity is insidious. For women of color, it means a workplace that mixes racial bias with gender bias in ways that multiply the occasions for hurt, harassment and EEOC complaints. We’ll leave you with the same quote that ended our TAM speech. It’s from a participant in our recent survey who wrote,
“I feel like a second-class citizen.”
No one working in the museum world should feel like that. We have the power to make change. Let’s do it.
Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson
This week Leadership Matters spoke on Women in the Museum at the Small Museum Association conference in College Park, MD. Actually we did less talking and more listening. While women in the museum workforce are often acutely aware of inequities–whether compensation, promotion, mentoring–they consistently battle boards, HR departments and museum leadership who act as though gender equity isn’t a problem or at least not a problem they need to devote time to.
Because we believe we are all change makers, we asked our audience to break into groups and respond to questions about how their own organizations advance gender equity. What followed was a lively discussion. When groups reported out, three topics predominated: salary inequity, salary negotiation, and the ever-present issues of childcare and the workplace.
In no particular order, here are some things that struck us:
- Museum women still fail to negotiate and they consistently underestimate their abilities. We know that failing to possess all the qualifications for a particular job does not stop men from applying, but it does stop women. Moreover, we know that in the world of work 57-percent of men negotiate for their first salary versus 5-percent of women. Men attribute their success to themselves; women attribute their success to others or a lucky break.
- Even without a transparent salary scale or salary bands, it’s an open secret that many museum salaries border on the unlivable. This is why it’s important to believe in your own worth, to use the Living Wage calculator, and to negotiate from the beginning.
- Women still shoulder the bulk of housework and childcare. This complicates their work life so that it becomes a ridiculous and ongoing internal struggle about how to negotiate parenthood and career. This complicated struggle causes women to delay career advancement in order to get past the early childhood years.
- We aren’t always each other’s biggest supporters, as women or as humans. Most women in our audience recognized the importance of both mentoring and a personal posse or kitchen cabinet. (Those are friends and colleagues who listen to you, but are clear-eyed enough to tell you when you’re wrong or you’re behaving like a jerk.) But few could point to bosses or boards who acknowledge gender issues–not to mention gender complicated by race and gender identity–as a career impediment.
If you are a museum leader or worker is gender equity your problem? You bet it is. Your colleagues, your team, your department and your organization are your problem. You don’t get to wring your hands and moan about the lack of diversity in the museum workforce when you’re not actively working to raise salaries so museum workers don’t need well-off partners or parents to make ends meet. You don’t get to pontificate about how important it is for museums to engage with their communities if you fail to acknowledge the very real and complex issues of 46.7-percent of your workforce. And you don’t get to whine about millennials and their attitudes toward work if you aren’t actively mentoring, guiding and advising the next generation.
Stellar organizations are value driven organizations. They put the most diverse group at the table they can, and treat staff as equitably as possible. Museum workers who are treated equitably are happy, and happy humans are creative humans. What organization doesn’t want that?
Anne Ackerson, Marieke Van Damme and I spoke at the New England Museum Association Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. Our title was Women|Museums: Lessons from the Workplace, and we were among the opening sessions of NEMA’s 2016 meeting in Mystic, CT. We expected to begin our program buoyed by a Clinton victory the night before. We counted on Clinton piercing the proverbial glass ceiling until sometime around midnight when clearly a different choice was underway, a fact confirmed when we woke much too early to the news of a pending Trump presidency.
When we began our program, the mood was somber, as if we’d all partied a bit too hard the night before, which, of course, we hadn’t. After introducing ourselves with a little story telling, we walked the group through five myths of gender in the museum world. Here they are:
Feminism is all about women being in power.
The contributions of women in museums are self-evident.
The salary disparity between male and female museum workers is a thing of the past.
There are so many women in the museum field now that gender equity will happen on its own.
It’s not about gender anymore; it’s about race, sexual orientation and class.
Then we asked the group to discuss two questions: If they could send a message to their colleagues, institutions, professional associations and graduate programs about gender in the museum workplace, what would it be? And, what is the one thing they are willing to do to make positive change toward gender equity? Each table had postcards for participants to write messages on. There’s a photograph of them at the top of the page, but they also showed up on Twitter, Facebook and various analog spots throughout the meeting.
When the groups reported out, their remarks clustered around some important topics. The hiring process came under discussion as women questioned why they don’t negotiate job offers, and whether that is something that can and should be taught. One respondent pointed out that if you are simply happy to be chosen, you lose all leverage to negotiate.
The road to a museum career also came under fire, particularly the idea that in too many instances students borrow to go to graduate school, and then find themselves working in unpaid internships as part of some additional rite of passage, all so they can earn, at best, a modest salary. One group’s solution: there should be a field-wide refusal to work for nothing. In addition, participants want women to leave graduate programs feeling confident about traditionally male areas of focus like finance. Can’t read a spread sheet from the business office? Grow your skill set.
Sexual harassment in the workplace was also discussed with participants asking where staff at small museums can go when they need help or advice, and what the board’s role is in seemingly condoning workplace sexism. A participant quipped that Boston area museums still have a Brahmin attitude, meaning you’ve been allowed to be part of the boys’ club, now deal with it. And there was also a shout out for not just doing what men do, but finding new solutions to achieve the same end.
And towards the end one woman reminded us all to “Put on our armor and fight like Amazons.” Which brings us to where we were before the election. This fall we created an advocacy group, Gender Equity in Museums Movement, or GEMM. As yet, we have no official affiliation, but we are beginning talks with AAM to see how GEMM can support its equity agenda. If you’re interested in knowing more about our call to action, please read and share our platform paper, A Call for Gender Equity in the Museum Workplace. If it speaks to you, join us via email, twitter or Facebook. Let’s make museums the poster child for women’s (and that’s all women, not just white women’s) equity. We’re not giving up and neither should you.
And if you were out of the country, living off the grid or you simply stopped reading post- election, you may want to look at:
In May I attended the Connecticut League of History Organizations (CLHO) annual meeting. In November, Anne and I, along with our friend Marieke Van Damme, go to the New England Museum Association’s (NEMA) annual meeting. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics if we could put everyone who works for a museum in one place, there would be 353,000 of us. If given a binary choice–46.7-percent of us–would identify as women. At meetings and conferences like CLHO, NEMA and huge events like AAM, there are a lot of women, and that visual makes many people believe our gender issues are solved. Done. Finished. There are so many women, what’s to complain about? We’ve arrived. Life is good.
We don’t believe that’s true, and before we say why, indulge us. We’re going to digress. Every week new readers find this blog. As its writers and designers, our focus is on what we’ve written most recently, but readers troll the archives looking for topic headings that interest them. Sometimes they comment. This week we received a comment from a women in response to the post “Can Museum Women Have It All?” It’s a heart breaker. If you’re inclined, you can scroll the 21 other comments for that post, some funny, some angry, some hoping for change. And if you’ve read it, you’re probably thinking, this woman’s problems are her own and don’t have anything to do with her job, whether it’s in museums or not. Yes. Sort of. Yet a field with notoriously poor salaries, especially for women, and more particularly, weak benefit packages, can leave anyone with family responsibilities (and I don’t just mean children) on the ropes.
Here’s what we believe about the gender question. A growth in population in a particular field doesn’t mean a problem is solved. Open doors don’t mean as much as we want them to–just think about museums and race. Fine to say we hire everyone, but oh, guess what? You need a graduate degree? How hard is that? Very, depending on your circumstances, and whether it’s intended to or not, it acts as a sifting mechanism.
But back to gender. A surfeit of women simply means more women in the late twentieth century invested in graduate school and found the museum field, but it doesn’t guarantee job equity, no siree. Think things are good where you work? Maybe they are. But ask yourself if your museum has the following:
- An organizational values statement.
- A board that has ever discussed any aspect of gender for any reason–organization, staff, exhibitions, board composition.
- An open salary scale, committed to avoiding bias and to equitable pay.
- Vacation and personal time off that allow staff to care for families and themselves when they are ill.
- Paid maternity and paternity leaves that allow parents to compete more equally in the job market.
- A private space for nursing mothers that’s not a bathroom stall.
- Flex time for staff.
After reading that list is the thought bubble over your head full of –but we have no money for paid leave, and my board would never discuss gender; it wouldn’t know how, and how can you have an open salary scale when your staff is tiny, and, and, and? Stop. Is it so radical to think about making museum human resources the center of a conversation? How might your workplace change if staff were less stressed about family and more focused on work? Think about the time lost when staff (or young directors) leave and the organization needs to re-group, re-hire, re-train. Grapple with the idea that your organization may require a master’s degree to apply, but pay less than a for-profit administrative job where a college degree isn’t required. Understand that your organization will never have a diverse staff if your job advertisements and subsequent job descriptions are best suited to someone with little graduate school debt and a well-off partner who provides benefits.
These are not problems you or your board will take care of in a day, a week or a month. But a willingness to acknowledge a problem and start down the path toward change will make the field better for everyone. Don’t wait for business to solve this problem. Let’s make museums the place that addressed the gender issue first and worked to solve it.
What are you doing to make museums better, more equitable ,workplaces?
In a summer that’s seen a White House Summit on the United States of Women, the first-ever nomination of a woman candidate for president by a major party, and the President penning an op-ed on his own feminism for a national magazine, isn’t it time the museum world got on the bus? Can you imagine if museums were the gold standard for gender equity in the non-profit world?
Wouldn’t it be remarkable if museums–that are on the cusp of becoming a pink collar profession or one dominated by women and beset by low-paying, undervalued jobs–reversed course and went out of their way to become leaders in gender equity? For over a century the heroines of this field, from Laura Bragg to the Hewitt sisters, to Susan Stitt, and more recently Elaine Heumann Gurian, Adrianne Russell and Monica Montgomery, have worked tirelessly for inclusivity. Each worked or works within her own time and culture, but the goal remains the same: Museums are for all, visitors and employees. Wouldn’t it be stunning if rather than being places where only those with entitled parents or partners choose to work, museums were an example to all non-profits for their policies about equal pay, paid sick leave, paid family leave and child care?
If you are a museum leader, board member, teacher in a graduate program or an employee, consider what you can do to further the field’s gender equity goals within your own organization. That may mean looking at everything from recruitment and hiring policies to work evaluation, to workplace tone, and mentoring.
As a result of our session, “What we talk about when we [don’t] talk about women in museums” at the 2016 American Alliance of Museums conference in Washington, DC in May, Anne Ackerson, Jessica Ferey, Marieke Van Damme, and I want to continue the conversation about gender equity in museums. If you’re interested too, we would like to hear from you.
If you missed our presentation, you can purchase the session recording here. (Since a good chunk of the session was audience conversation and report out, the recording might leave you wondering what was happening for 30+ minutes!) But, you can access a free copy of our slides here.
Want to Join in the Equity Conversation?
At AAM, we also discussed the idea of bringing back some kind of women’s caucus–first launched by Susan Stitt in 1972– and we’re continuing to talk about this. One of our ideas is to create a Gender Equity Committee (GenComm) in the coming year. If you would like to help, please fill out this short contact form and survey, and be sure to tell us what a group like GenComm, if initiated, could do for gender equity in the museum workplace.
Once we’ve heard from everyone, we’ll be back in touch with updates about the the way forward. In the meantime, feel free to email us with any questions, comments, or ideas!
Enjoy the last weeks of summer,
Joan Baldwin with Anne Ackerson, Jessica Ferey, and Marieke Van Damme
Recently we’ve had a few conversations suggesting some of you believe that now the museum field is on the verge of pink collar profession-dom, its issues with gender are solved. In other words, all you need is a bunch of women–(the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the field now hovers somewhere around 46.7-percent female although the recent Mellon study of art museums pegged women at 60-percent of their employees)–and voila your problems are over and museums can focus on the real 21st century issue: diversity. We disagree. Not that we disagree that diversity is a major issue for museums, we don’t. And it is.
As we’ve written here in the past, in a perfect world, the museum workforce would reflect the communities it serves. Children, families and individuals would engage and learn from staffs that are as diverse as they are. But acknowledging the lily-whiteness and the frequent privilege of our field does not mean its issues with gender have disappeared. Were the field to try to consciously solve its gender problems, it certainly wouldn’t hinder the battle for a more diverse workforce.
The term pink collar joined common speech during the second world war, but rose to prominence in 1977 when writer Louise Kapp Howe published Pink Collar Workers: Inside the World of Women’s Work. The book was nominated for a National Book Award and the term joined its cousins, blue and white collar, referring to workers who perform manual labor and professionals or administrators respectively. Other traditionally pink collar fields include teaching, nursing and counseling. For an entire list, see Pink Collar Jobs.
But take it from us, being a pink collar profession isn’t a good thing. And a field dominated by women does not mean it ceases to have issues with equal pay, with maternity/paternity leave, with childcare, with sexual harassment. Think those things don’t happen in the museum world? Do its trappings of Waspy privilege protect it from unpleasant and unwanted groping or inappropriate language? No, not really. It may be a third space, but the museum world isn’t immune to the problems of the world at large. Nor does the world of museum workers equal what happens in urban museums on the two coasts. There are worlds in between, some sophisticated, some not. But this April 12 women museum workers coast to coast, regardless of color or the gender binary, will join together knowing they’ve finally earned as much as their male colleagues did in 2015. If you’d like to know more about the pay gap, click here: 2016 Pay Gap.
This week AAM issued its 2016 TrendsWatch report. It nods to salary discrimination writing: “Museums can’t compete with the private sector on wages, but if they are willing to abandon outmoded practices, they can become the ultimate cool, creative place to work, so much so that the best and brightest are willing to sacrifice income to work in the field.” (p.15) Really? And then later…”Given traditionally low museum salaries, it may be realistic for much of our sector to focus on employee happiness and wellbeing, as well as trying to budget financial incentives.”(p.44) But how do we make employees happy or feel ultimately cool when we pay them less than many other fields, while still demanding a graduate degree?
We’ll close with one last thought: Diversity and gender are not mutually exclusive, and a workforce dominated by women does not mean women’s workplace problems are solved. In our opinion there’s still work to do.
Over the last month, this blog has seen an intense, and we believe, healthy discussion of museum salaries, but it’s been weeks since we’ve spoken about gender. For those of you who are first-time readers, we are finishing the manuscript for Women|Museums: Lessons from the Field. As a result, we are in the habit of writing about gender every four to six weeks. This week, while working on Women|Museums, we had an inspiring conversation with members of Museum Workers Speak. So here are some slightly random, but inter-related thoughts on gender prompted by that conversation.
For those of you care about the museum field, both its work spaces and its content-rich exhibition spaces, you should know what MWS is doing. You can find it on Twitter and on the Web at the incluseum. Its members are activists. They are courageous. They are queer, black, brown, straight and transgender. They are the people you want around your museum table. Did we agree on everything? Probably not. But we’re pretty certain they are a voice for the future.
Over the course of the conversation, MWS expressed concern that like the rest of the museum world, it too is seen as a white women’s group. Not true. MWS is a fierce advocate, pushing HR offices, boards and directors to hire people who reflect a museum’s community. And while MWS has been an advocate for paid internships, it is also a supporter of salary equity across the field.
Here at Leadership Matters we believe that there is a dissonance between the field’s content and the world of museum offices and HR. And like MWS, we don’t think tokenism is a way to solve the field’s diversity problem. We applaud the intent, but as we’ve written here before, if you want your museum to reflect your community, you have to know that community. In creating alliances with your city or town’s many racial and ethnic groups, you will also create opportunities for internships, community meetings, family gatherings and mentoring. Change like this isn’t sudden. In fact, it can seem glacial because you aren’t just changing the museum field, you’re changing society.
But here’s where we likely part company with MWS. It argues that the field’s whiteness creates barriers for a more diverse workforce. We agree, but the implication that the museum field’s white women are a privileged lot is one we dispute. Yes, the field’s low salaries have attracted legions of privileged white women, who are sometimes trailing spouses, but whose partner’s salaries allow them to manage on terminally low salaries. But not every white woman is a person of privilege. Nor is every white woman in the museum field. And our research points to a workforce of museum women who regularly experience inequitable treatment. We ruffled some feathers a week or so ago when we published a salary food chain, which began with straight white men, and ended with transgender folks. Yes, white women are ahead of women of color on that food chain, but that’s not saying much.
At several points during our conversation with MWS we spoke about “intersectionality,” the multi-dimensional nature of gender, identity, and race. At Leadership Matters we believe that for the field to heal itself, not only do we all need to be at the table, but–to quote Emma Watson’s HeforShe speech–we need to stop defining each other by what we’re not. In short, we need to worry more about inclusivity than diversity. We’ll end with a quote from Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist which sums things up for us: “To have privilege in one or more areas does not mean you are wholly privileged. Surrendering to the acceptance of privilege is difficult, but it is really all that is expected. What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgment of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered.”
Let us know what you’re thinking.
Gender equity in nonprofit cultural organizations — and in museums, particularly — is a subject that’s on our minds these days. We’re gathering information, ideas, and pointed declarations from our research and conversations, including what boards of trustees need to do to model and promote gender equity, as well as hold themselves and their staffs accountable to making museum workplaces level playing fields for women and men.
Fact is, the commitment to gender diversity and equity starts at the top. As with any value system, if organizational leaders don’t walk the talk, who will? Board leadership must commit to it in their own ranks, not only by sustaining a thoughtful balance among trustees, but by rejecting stereotypes in their appointments of officers and committee chairpeople (that’s right, we still see lots of women filling the role of board secretary and chairing the events, collections and program committees and men filling the role of board treasurer and chairing the finance, strategic planning and building committees). Don’t make gender the automatic default in populating these key roles. And don’t make it the default in hiring the CEO.
Stereotyping of any type and gender bias need to be addressed head-on. Never underestimate the need for board candidates and board members to learn about how to serve on a board and how to model your organization’s values. Teach about power (its uses and abuses), the legal and ethical ramifications of bias, and the toll it takes on morale. Take the time to continually educate your board. This goes for staff leadership, too.
Be mindful of language. Patterns of behavior and language can’t be broken without recognizing them first. Be mindful of how board members use language and whether board discussions and task assignments are gender neutral.
Don’t tolerate stereotyping and gender bias on the part of staff leaders. A board must ensure that staff leaders are just as accountable for their actions with staff as they are for the financial bottom line. A “star” leader is no match for the corroding influence of her or his bias. Encourage a culture of transparency, whistleblower protection, and swift action.
Staff need to learn how to deal with boards or board members who are out-of-bounds. From intentional action to the casual remark, boards can support staff with training, policies, and systems of accountability that include discipline. Model healthy board-staff relationship-building. This is about respect. Period.
Finally, you don’t have to be on the executive or personnel committees to be on the lookout outside the field for ideas, information, and solutions that could be adopted or adapted by your board, staff leadership and/or the HR department.