If you saw any social media last week, you’re aware that recently more than a few museum directors left their positions. It’s a disturbing trend, and while tempting to blame on COVID, as if life minus the pandemic was ducky, we know that’s not true. COVID threw open a Pandora’s box of problems, but the seeds were sown a decade or more ago. With that in mind, how long can the field move forward, without acknowledging what’s going on backstage in museum offices? How much lipstick can the museum pig wear?
Change threatens the weakest points, and sadly, museum leadership and governance has been wobbly for a while. Why? There are a number of reasons, but before going there, let’s acknowledge how COVID makes each of us vulnerable individually and personally, leading to a nationwide level of workplace stress. Nothing is as we knew it. Many jobs were lost. Many were sick, and more than 600,000 lost their lives, meaning at least twice that number come to work grief-stricken. Childcare was affected, and now with the Delta Variant, parents need to calibrate risk on a daily basis, balancing children’s need for school, over the risk of exposure. My point is only as the museum workplace reaches a boiling point, we would do well to remember that for the last 20 months nobody’s had their eye on the proverbial ball.
But back to the other epidemic: the one where museum directors walk out the door. Let’s start at the top. Not for the first time in these pages I’m going to suggest that along with COVID there is an epic level of poor governance at the board level. Don’t believe me? Spend an hour on Instagram reading @changetheboard or on Facebook looking at Your Thriving Nonprofit, and you’ll see what I mean. Differing state regulations governing nonprofits, a general lack of understanding regarding what nonprofits do, combined with an epic level of misunderstanding about a board’s role, as well as poor board onboarding, leaving us with board members who see their roles, not as something for the collective and organizational good, but as an opportunity to behave tyrannically. So instead of partnering with their board in running an organization, museum leaders with wayward boards spend too much time in training and education. Who looses? Museum staff and their communities.
Next up poor training and preparation for leaders. Again, if this is something you don’t believe, take a gander at @changethemuseum or @changeberkshireculture or read Dana Kopel’s excellent Unionizing the New Museum a sick-making tour through the New Museum’s reluctant journey to unionization. This blog is dedicated to the idea that leadership is a thing unto itself, not a reward for dedicated service; nor is it the payoff for doing well in your original museum job. Leadership doesn’t depend on content knowledge and scholarship the way a curator’s role may, but instead flourishes with “soft skills,” that are now the hard skills, meaning museum leaders must be good communicators, people who are empathetic, courageous, and visionary.
Then there’s the money challenge. I work on the outskirts of the museum field, but my organization’s strong endowment means I don’t worry about our big dreams. But I’m not the point. Too many in museum and heritage organization staff work hard just to keep organizations afloat, much less to implement their wishlists. It’s why museum leaders need courage, vision, and the communication skills to persuade community leaders whether they are fancy one-percenters or small city business people that what they do is for everyone, and most importantly why it’s for everyone.
Last, and by no means least, is the museum world’s long history of systemic gender, class, and race issues. We have a lousy pay structure built around issues of race and gender, forcing too many women and women of color to tread water professionally. Beyond the HR issues, our institutions are riddled with systemic racism in ways the overwhelmingly white staffs aren’t doing the work to acknowledge. You can’t become the activist museum Mike Murawski talks about unless staff and community collaborate so the barriers come down. Diversifying staff is not the whole answer. There is parallel work to do on the part of the we’ve–always–done–it–that–way staff and leadership.
So what’s the answer? Some thoughts….
- Making sure leadership training is something all museum leaders have access to either as part of graduate school, later or both.
- Making sure board members understand their roles. As lame as some of the sexual harassment online training is, it does spell out the legal landscape. Maybe board members need a 20-minute online class they must pass before signing on?
- By building museums that are value driven.
- By believing that museums are really for people. And what do people need? Love, caring, kindness, museums that are humane, human-centered, and empathetic.
- Working toward museums and heritage organizations that don’t exploit the dedication many emerging professionals give to the field.
- Recognizing wellness as a thing, and burnout not as a term, but a condition. Non-profit does not mean museum employees should toil in some 21st-century imitation of a 19th-century mill.
- Last, if you want something hopeful to read, take a look at this, first Tweeted by the inimitable Linda Norris. Working for Trevor White sounds like it might be a little bit of alright.
Be well and be kind.
Well, there’s nothing like an article on museum pay to get people’s hackles up. Last week, in listing the workplace issues the museum world contends with, I mentioned the gender pay gap, writing, “Sometimes I feel as though the pay gap takes short shrift in comparison to DEI issues, but the gender pay gap is the definition of the absence of DEI. It affects all women from transgender women to Black, Indigenous, and Latinx women. The cascading hourly pay they receive is testament to one of the last big labor problems yet to be tackled. Among other things, the gender pay gap is metaphor for how those in authority view those without power.”
One of that post’s comments came from Michael Holland. In addition to being a natural history exhibit person with a passion for all things dinosaur, Holland has been a longtime voice for equitable wages. Google him, and you’ll find this piece he wrote for AAM three years ago. He concluded his comment on my post with this: “If we want underrepresented people to join us, we need to make sure that they too can afford to stay. At minimum, we should stop financially pushing against the very diversity, equity, and inclusion that DEI initiatives aim to address.” Too true. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there’s no point in museum workplace DEI initiatives if at their heart the institution supports and enables a system that perpetuates racism.
As I wrote in my original post, the gender pay gap has long been aligned with white women’s feminism, and is often seen as a white woman’s issue, but the data doesn’t bear this out. And like everything else about race/gender issues, both a White and a Black women can suffer from the gender pay gap, but the Black woman’s suffering is different and greater. In fact, in practical terms, it’s 17 cents on the dollar greater than a White woman, and for Indigenous women, it is greater still, not to mention Latinx women’s who make 25 cents less than the white man’s dollar. So the diversity of a museum’s staff is not the whole story. It is window dressing if the organization hasn’t done a pay equity audit to make sure its salaries are equitable; otherwise, it only perpetuates a broken and racist system.
Recently I had a conversation with a member of the leadership at my own institution. My employer sees itself as fairly enlightened. Its hiring practices have all been revamped in the last five years, but pay remains shrouded in mystery. When I raised the issue of a gender pay gap, I was told that our pay was carefully calculated against similar positions in similar institutions. When I suggested that other institutions, and in fact entire fields have gender wage suppression so comparisons are moot, the conversation kind of ended. But that’s the issue. It’s why certain groups like Museum Hue and GEMM fight for transparency about salaries in job advertisements and why women in particular shouldn’t be asked for their salary at a previous job.
So…bottom line? Maybe if we can see the gender wage gap, not as already privileged white women’s whining, but in fact the superstructure for wage inequity, we can make change. If–and I realize it’s a big if–
- AAM and AASLH can talk about the gender wage gap and how it perpetuates racism.
- If they can offer solutions and examples of how to do a pay equity audit…..
- ….while also continuing to support and encourage organizations dealing with bias surrounding the hiring and onboarding process…
- If they would be willing to support the kind of information available for librarians, women entering the museum field might have a better chance of lobbying for more equitable pay. Indeed, just acknowledging in every bit of information surrounding HR issues that the gender pay gap is a thing, would go a long way toward women of all races not feeling gaslit by the system.
- How can we–as individuals and organizations– build on the growing labor consciousness in the museum workforce in ways that are helpful and regenerative? How can we build on labor’s use of Instagram as a venue to air out grievances and hurt?
As Michael Holland points out in his comment from last week, the road to successful museum employment is littered with a landmines. There is education–Do you have the right degrees?–Cost–If you get the degree, can you cope with the potential debt?–And daily life. Can you afford to live near and commute to your museum? All those questions have to be answered before starting a job. Staying in a position, and indeed in the field, depends on finding a humane workplace and equitable pay. And equitable pay ONLY works if the gender pay gap is addressed otherwise no matter what your museum says about how important workplace DEI issues are, it’s all a lie. Remember Nina Simon’s great Tweet: When you prioritize the safety and welcome of people who have lower access to power, you are working for equity and inclusion. When you prioritize the comfort and preferences of people with higher access to power, you are working against it. That doesn’t only apply to museum issues that are front facing, but most importantly to those that take place “backstage” and involve only a museum or heritage organization’s workforce.
Be kind, be truthfull, and be well.
P.S. I also want to acknowledge Paul Thistle’s work and concern for the museum world’s wellness. (See the other comments and reposts from last week.) One of the many contributors to workplace stress is an inadequate paycheck. A stressed staff is an unhappy staff, and an unhappy staff is bad for community and collaboration.
In the United States, this weekend is three days long. For those not coping with displacement and disaster due to fire or flood, it’s Labor Day, and an extra day off from the weekly grind. So it seems like an appropriate moment to check in and take the temperature of work in Museumland, what’s good, not-so-good, and what’s truly awful.
You’ve heard me say this before, but when I began this blog in 2012 there weren’t a lot of people talking about working conditions in museums and heritage organizations. Every organization was its own entity, and its basic humanity and worker care came down to who ran the museum. There was, and still is, a sort of every person for themselves mentality. Sometimes staff ended up with a humane leader, sometimes not, and when the worst happened they were counseled to stay quiet because “It’s a small field,” and basically no one wants to be labeled as “difficult.”
There were few public conversations about leadership, and when they happened, the assumption was that yes, abysmal leadership happened in small, pitiful historical societies somewhere, but not in the large, well-funded urban museums with elegantly dressed directors. Well, we know that’s not true. In fact, over the last decade, and particularly over the last five years, the scales seem to have fallen from our collective eyes. Museumland isn’t the Nirvana we wanted it to be. There are examples of bad leadership everywhere from large urban art museums to small heritage organizations.
That said, it’s not all dreadful, and in some areas the needle’s actually moved in a good way. Some examples:
- According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for 2020, there are more women in the field (63.6%) than ever before, and presumably many of those women are in leadership positions across the museum ecosystem. That’s definitely a change from a decade ago, and a good thing.
- The BLS also predicts museums are a growth field. (I know, hilarious, right?) But the BLS isn’t a bunch of comedians and their data predicts we’re a growing industry–much faster than average–is the way they put it, and we should expect 11-percent growth over the next decade. Could that be the sound of retirement parties as Baby Boomers finally exit stage left?
- Even though I mentioned it above, I think the fact that museum folk, led last week by AAM, are speaking about the issues of leadership, and by implication, HR, hiring, and bias, that’s a good thing, and something that couldn’t or didn’t happen five years ago.
- Millennials seem savvier to me. Maybe it’s because I’m older (still), but they seem less willing to settle for a job in the museum sector simply because an organization wants to hire them.
- And even mired in COVID, all the major service organizations have managed to address leadership, workplace gender harassment, and HR as part of their annual meeting schedules, a far cry from the days when we were told, “We don’t talk about those things,” even though staff were literally being belittled and harassed as service organizations put conference schedules together.
- More staff at large museums are joining unions. Unions are not a panacea, but they give members a powerful voice and a way to negotiate with organizations who don’t want to negotiate. And a new Economic Policy Institute report on unions points out that unionized workers make on average 11.2-percent more than their non-unionized peers. In addition, Black and Hispanic workers get even more of a boost receiving 13.7-percent and 20.1-percent respectively as union memberships pushes past the racial stereotyping and class bias in non-union situations.
And how about the not so good?
- The pay is still not good. According to the BLS the median pay for archivists, curators and museum workers is $52,140, which is up from two years ago, but still doesn’t match the median pay of librarians ($60,820) or teachers ($62,870). Not that either of those numbers is a benchmark especially when you consider Dan Price just raised his company’s minimum annual pay to $70K.
- Too many museums and heritage organizations still don’t have HR policies, and utilize a seat-of-the-pants method where the director or the board makes decisions which inevitably result in inequities.
- In a world that’s 63.6-percent women, questions around family care, parental leave, personal time off need to be decided for the organization not on a case-by-case basis.
- If we believe the BLS, as of 2020, the museum world was 94.6-percent White, .6-percent Black, 7.6-percent Hispanic, and 4.4-percent Asian. (And yes, even I, a math cripple, can tell that all those added together is more than 100-percent.) So no matter how much change appears to be happening on social media, when the government crunches the numbers, it’s a field that’s NOT diverse.
And the truly awful:
- Given the field’s entrance ticket is still a very expensive graduate degree, salaries are low. Unlike boards of education, museums don’t hire newly-minted undergraduates and then support them while they earn their graduate degree, forcing new museum staff to invest first, before they even know the field, and pay later.
- There is a lot of hand-wringing when it comes to pay in the museum field, a lot of you-can’t-get-blood-from-a-stone talk, but until boards realize staff are an investment every bit as important as a new HVAC system or a new storage facility, nothing will change. Someday, maybe, AAM or AASLH will take a stand about salaries and publish a page like this one from the American Library Association.
- DEI is not something that is spun. It’s not something you fabricate so your organization looks good in public and on social media; it’s a process, and it takes a lot of work to re-center institutional DNA, but ultimately creating diverse teams makes us all better collaborators.
- There is STILL a gender pay gap, and as the field is increasingly populated by women, the issue of the pay gap becomes more acute. Sometimes I feel as though the pay gap takes short shrift in comparison to DEI issues, but the gender pay gap is the definition of the absence of DEI. It affects all women from transgender women to Black, Indigenous, and Latinx women. The cascading hourly pay they receive is testament to one of the last big labor problems yet to be tackled. Among other things, the gender pay gap is metaphor for how those in authority view those without power. And anyone in museum leadership who says they are a feminist or supports women’s rights, but hasn’t done a gender pay audit isn’t being truthful.
Be well. Be kind. Do your best.
Last Friday I spent some time with three awesome museum women. We were tasked with speaking to a group of college-age interns, who might or might not enter the museum field. Our first question was what advice would we give our 21-year old selves, if the clock turned backward? For me, it prompted a lot of self-reflection. In college, I didn’t always listen to my mentors. I was polite, but I didn’t always internalize and reflect on the advice offered.
So here, for anyone who’s listening, a baker’s dozen of things I wish I’d understood at the tender age of 21.
- That self-advocacy is a practice, and it’s different from making it all about you. Self care brings out your best; selfishness, your worst.
- That a woman’s workplace is different from a man’s. That a woman of color’s workplace is different than a white woman’s.
- Empathy has a key function in the museum workplace, and empathy doesn’t mean playing Ms. Fix It.
- That it’s important to understand your field of practice, whether it’s museums, archives, galleries or libraries. That studying your field as if it were a country you might visit is important. Learn the culture. Teach yourself who is powerful and why, and who is not powerful and why.
- That suffering and scarcity are not traditions that should be passed from one generation of museum workers to the next. Ridiculous schedules, pitiful salaries and job descriptions that read like indentured servitude are a form of hazing. Don’t take a job that requires another job to make you whole. See #4.
- That engaging with people in your workplace–regardless of age, race, position or gender– is important. It’s not a favor you do, it’s a learning experience. Sharing stories builds trust. See #s 4 and 12.
- That not all problems deserve the drama they receive. Stay in the present. Blame can wait. Solve the problem and move forward.
- A career needs to feed your soul, but it may not do that every day. Watch for side roads. They are slower, but the experience is entirely different. Be open to taking them.
- Stand up for your colleagues. Not standing up for them is selfish. See #1. You may be sure you’re not racist, classist, sexist, fattist, but remember the writer’s maxim: Show don’t tell. It’s not about your beliefs as much as your actions.
- Who told you you have to do everything perfectly, by yourself, the first time? Ask if you don’t understand or if you need help. Collaborating doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad colleague. It generates good ideas.
- One of the great joys of the museum workplace–indeed of any workplace– is learning. You aren’t an expert. You may know a lot, but there’s always someone who knows something more. #neverstoplearning.
- Don’t depend on fate or love or a mentor to orchestrate your career. It’s your career. Strategize for yourself the same way you would for an organization.
- Be kind.
Be well and stay safe.
It’s been awhile, but I think it’s time to talk about salaries again. This morning I spent some time searching this blog for articles I’ve written about museum pay, from the gender pay gap, to the leadership pay gap, to questions about museum jobs and a living wage. What’s horrifying isn’t that I wrote so many, (I did) it’s that in 2016 the issues I outlined were more or less the same as today–inadequate salaries, gender pay gap, huge gaps between director’s pay and lowest paid FT staff, and lousy benefits–minus of course the pandemic, and the fact that AAM’s recent survey tells us COVID will devastate the field a second time, as it predicts 20-percent of us will leave the field entirely by 2024.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which released its findings this month, sounds less dire than AAM. For one thing, the BLS looks backward to project forward so we will need to wait ’til next April to fully understand the depth and breadth of COVID’s damage. In addition, the BLS only looks at numbers. It doesn’t ask the museum world how it feels about work, only who is employed, and if yes, doing what? According to the BLS “Overall employment of archivists, curators, museum technicians, and conservators is projected to grow 11 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations.” It projects 4,500 openings annually over the next decade, adding cryptically “Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire. Candidates seeking archivist, curator, museum technician, or conservator jobs should expect competition because of the high number of qualified applicants per job opening. Jobseekers with highly specialized training, a master’s degree, and internship or volunteer experience should have the best job prospects.” And all this for a median salary of $52,140, and the knowledge that if you are working full time and making less than $30,460, you are in the lowest 10-percent, and if you’re making more than $91,800, you are in the top 10-percent.
One of the lessons I’ve tried to internalize since George Floyd’s murder is that we white people of privilege are good at blathering, meaning we can latch onto an idea, sound like we understand, but don’t actually do anything. One of my own promises has been to say less and do more, to–in fact–do the work. (I do acknowledge the irony of any blogger saying they are going to say less, but I have a life outside these pages.) So I understand if you’re a museum leader whose heritage site or museum has recently opened. After months of lockdowns and false starts, it probably sets your hair on fire to think about salary equity when you’re up nights worrying about whether your organization will stay solvent through the summer. Everyone can grumble about directors’ salaries at the Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art or the Museum of Natural History, but unless you work at MoMA, Glenn Lowry’s $4,130,549 salary, isn’t your worry. Your worry is your own director’s salary, those of your leadership, and most importantly those of your staff because until salaries and salary equity are a regular and necessary topic of conversation, there won’t be change.
Christopher Bedford, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, who deaccessioning purists pilloried for his efforts to raise BMA staff wages by raising money through deaccessioning has in fact, managed to raise his lowest staff wages to $15/hour four years ahead of Maryland’s minimum wage change over. BMA has also announced that Johnnetta Betsch Cole, the former director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and the former president of Spelman College who joined the museum as pro bono special counsel last spring, will establish an in-house task force on equity. Not everyone has the resources to take such bold action, but anyone who is a museum leader can start the discussion at the board and leadership level. Some things to consider:
- Give your board some context: Are they aware what your state’s living wage is? Where are your museum’s lowest FT wages in comparison? Where are your hourly earners’ wages?
- And where are your museum or heritage organization’s salaries in terms of the museum field? Does your board see and regularly discuss AAM’s salary survey? Do they understand that while they are responsible for hiring the museum leader, money allotted for salaries for the rest of the staff has a direct affect on an organization’s DNA?
- COVID isn’t just an epidemic: Has your board read and discussed AAM’s COVID survey results?
- Salaries have meaning: Has your board talked–really talked about the meaning of salaries–how if you are a Black woman and making 63-cents on the White man’s dollar, that not only do you take home less, your organization is complicit in saying you are worth less?
- Staff matters, people matter. Do you talk about your staff with your board? Do you talk about them as contributors and what that looks like? Does your board have opportunities to meet staff and hear from them first hand?
- Does your board see itself as part of a larger firmament, a museum-world currently threatened by a significant brain drain if one-fifth of the workforce walks away?
I am not saying any of this is easy. I once had a board member pivot in his chair so I spent the rest of a meeting about staff salaries staring at his back after I suggested our organization’s location was a theme park for the wealthy and thus challenging for staff making less than $15/hour to find housing. Regrettably, change takes time. Salaries render in cold hard cash what we think of the work we do, the people who do it, and they way we place people in racial and gender hierarchies. I want to acknowledge the many individuals and groups–not least of which is Museum Workers Speak— who continue to make museum wages an ongoing topic of discussion. AAM has done such good work helping us understand the workplace post-COVID, but one of the actions it could take would be to follow the American Library Association in endorsing a living wage for all museum workers.
When I first tackled this subject more than five years ago, I felt like I was ranting alone. But while it’s important to draw attention to the museum field’s systemic issues, it’s also important for museum leaders to look to putting their own houses in order. Until we put wages on the table and start educating our public, our boards, and ourselves that salaries are a political, cultural and social choice this will remain a difficult issue for the field.
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,
A year ago when there was no pandemic, women made up 50.1 percent of the museum workforce. They were registrars, educators, part-time interpreters, security guards, conservators, curators and directors. They went to work. They cared for children, partners, and elderly parents. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, White women made 78.4 cents for every dollar a white man makes. For women of color, particularly those with hourly or part-time positions, the picture is bleaker. If they are Black, they make 61.4 cents for every dollar made by white men, and if they are Latinx, the ratio is worse: They make 56 cents on the white man’s dollar. Those discrepancies also exist in the museum world, but for many it was work in a field they had worked hard to enter. And a year ago, although the museum world didn’t close its gender pay gap–in fact, it didn’t even talk about it–it felt as though the field might be undergoing a sea change. Among the announcements of new hires, more and more faces were women of color. But then in March 2020, COVID arrived, and the world started closing down.
You’ve probably read all this before, and truthfully, while the museum world’s gender pay gap is an ongoing problem, this post isn’t about the pay gap. It’s actually about AAM’s newly-released TrendsWatch, Navigating an Uncertain Future. As a founding member of Gender Equity in Museums, I frequently look at TrendsWatch, hoping for an acknowledgement, a nod, a tip of the hat, to women’s roles in museums present and future. This year, I hoped TrendsWatch would acknowledge the very particular way museum women have been harmed by COVID, and what that might mean as we look ahead. Women, work and COVID has, in fact, been the subject of reports by the Center for American Progress, the Brookings Institution and McKinsey so it wasn’t a stretch to think Elizabeth Merritt, the report’s author, might focus on women, particularly since 2020 marked the centenary of women’s suffrage.
The report’s opening section, titled “Closing the Gap,” seemed the place women’s issues over the last 12 months might come to the fore. But they aren’t there. This is not to say that issues of wealth inequality– “Closing the Gap’s” focus– aren’t important. They are, but it’s odd women as a group aren’t mentioned. If we believe the folks at McKinsey, women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable than men’s jobs in this crisis. In fact, women make up 39-percent of global employment but account for 54-percent of overall job losses. And if we listen to the Brookings Institution, it tells us “that 46-percent of working women worked in jobs paying low wages, with median earnings of only $10.93 per hour. The share of workers earning low wages is higher among Black women (54%) and Hispanic or Latina women (64%) then among white women (40%), reflecting the structural racism that has limited options in education, housing, and employment for people of color.”
A quick look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reveals that the median hourly pay for museum workers nationwide is $23.97, meaning that half the field’s workers earn less than that amount. And we already know that systemic racism coupled with classism and pigmentocracy, undergirds our pay structure. Poor pay, no benefits, and no childcare result in women staying home. Who else is going to be the primary caregiver? According to the Center for American Progress not only did many women lose their jobs during this crisis, many stopped working because schools and day cares closed. Its report quotes a Washington Post article that one in four women lost jobs because of a lack of childcare, twice the rate among men. And the news keeps coming. This morning, for example, NBC News reports that 275,000 women left the workforce in January alone, continuing a trend that began last February. Surely the museum world has also been affected by this exodus that economists term a critical pandemic trend.
If you look at the BLS figures from 2018, White women were 82.4-percent of the museum workforce, Black women, 10.3-percent, Asian 3.6, and Latinx 9.6. The change is subtle, but it’s there. BLS reports that in 2020 the museum world is now 82.2-percent White, but 7.5-percent Black, 9.3-percent Latinx, while the Asian number remains unchanged. It will probably be several years before the full extent of this crisis is evident, but clearly the hope that the field is becoming more diverse isn’t reflected in BLS’s figures yet.
Then there is the part that doesn’t necessarily show up in the data: the workload has grown for working parents, but particularly working mothers. One report by the Boston Consulting Group found that parents spent 27 additional hours each week on household tasks, childcare, and homeschooling, and half of them felt their work performance decreased as a result. In 1972, a group of white museum women formed something called the Women’s Caucus. They appeared at AAM’s annual meetings in 1972. In 1973, they presented a platform, asking for equitable wages, a chance at leadership, paid family leave and childcare. In the intervening 40 years, museum women have changed. We are more diverse–not diverse enough by a long shot– but more diverse. And many women now hold leadership positions. Yet in a Ground Hog Day loop, much of what that original caucus wanted and needed remains unaddressed. That’s where Gender Equity in Museums (GEMM) comes in. GEMM is a coalition of individuals and organizations committed to raising awareness, affecting change, and championing transparency about intersectional gender equity in the museum workplace.
One of the important characteristics of Merritt’s report is that for each problem, she describes the challenges, summarizes museum responses, and presents a framework for action. I want to underscore again, that there is a great deal of thoughtful advice, important examples, and additional resources in TrendsWatch, but speaking for GEMM’s 1,500 Facebook friends, there is a missing framework: Women. All women. So here are some possible questions.
Critical Questions for Museums:
- Have you created an organizational culture acknowledging the ways gender and race are inextricably intwined?
- Does your museum have–as McKinsey terms it–“a bias for action?”
- Have your discussions around DEI solidified a commitment to equity on all fronts, including gender?
- Have you completed an equity audit of your institutional salaries?
- Have you reviewed your human resource policies and procedures to reveal and address discriminating behavior?
- Are you confident, that an employee with a problem or a grievance can navigate your organization, and be treated equitably and fairly?
- Do you offer sexual harassment training along with DEI training in your workplace? And is your organization clear on its definition of sexual harassment, and how such cases are handled?
- Does your organization post its values statement so visitors, donors, tradespeople, trustees and staff know where it stands on issues of DEI and specifically gender equity?
- Does your organization list salaries when posting positions? Within the institution, are your salary levels transparent?
- Does your museum offer equitable professional opportunities and mentoring?
- Does your museum have a policy on employee participation in public protest for gender equity and other forms of social justice?
The museum field has a lot of work ahead of it, shedding a patriarchal, hierarchical past, becoming more diverse in ways that are systemic and not tokenism, and frankly, in becoming kinder institutions, committed to staff well-being and development. In the past year we’ve watched as notable museums were revealed as horrific towards women. The field is committed to diversity. Yet why should women of color join a field where the gender pay gap is the unacknowledged elephant in the room? And what happens when they find themselves employed by institutions where sexual harassment and workplace bullying are the norm? And how are all women balancing the increased tasks at home from COVID versus their commitments at work? How is this narrative and the voices of some 20,000-plus women not a trend to watch, and more importantly, a wrong to right?
If you are committed to intersectional gender equity in the museum workplace, join GEMM. Let’s make GEMM a trend to watch.
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?
As some of you know, I am spending this academic year as an interim library leader. Has it changed my work life? You bet. Instead of being the leader of a collection of inanimate objects, paintings and rare books, and the occasional historian for my colleagues in archives, I’m now the boss of myself while leading a department of seven. One of my charges is to ready our team for the hiring process that will take place in 2021 when we seek a permanent leader.
While there are pieces of this process that are organizational–which search firms to use, adding voices and layers to the interview process, having job description language checked for bias, eliminating implicit bias from the interview process–there are also details that belong to us. Those need to be unpacked before the process begins in earnest. This is not our first rodeo. We began in 2018 believing we could hire a two-year interim, someone who would offer us 24 months of stability while we got our house in order. It worked a decade earlier, but this time, no one wanted the job. We began again in 2019, only to be interrupted by the pandemic, ultimately stopping the search while travel and our organization shut down. Now we’re on the cusp of beginning again.
As a staff and as an organization we are committed to DEI. Last summer we wrote an Anti-Racist statement coupled with a programmatic action list. Yet, when we were asked recently whether we would consider someone without a master’s in library science as a way to make hiring more inclusive, there was a degree of consternation and pushback. Why? Well, probably lots of reasons from the most subjective–I struggled to get this degree, why should a director receive the big salary and perquisites when they didn’t–to concerns that someone without the degree literally wouldn’t understand the workings of an academic library, archives and special collections. And yet, the degree is a barrier. It is expensive, and in most cases, it teaches content not leadership. Too much content knowledge can plunge a leader into a this-is-the-way-it’s-always-done behavior, and cripple creativity. Perhaps in this moment we need a human who believes in what we do, who is empathetic and a good listener, someone who will translate the arcane necessities of our work for the larger organization; someone who makes us shine.
Recently we spent a staff meeting identifying qualities we’d like to see in a director. One of our colleagues mentioned she was more interested in hearing about a candidate’s ideas for the future than their past experience. In short, she’d like to hear where they want to take us. There was something hugely revolutionary in that statement. It pointed toward not finding the person we’re used to, but the person who will take us–maybe kicking and screaming– where we want to go. That might mean hiring someone younger, more agile, someone with more passion than experience or more experience than degrees.
We’ve also reflected on the type of questions we asked in the previous go rounds. Ten years ago we needed a leader to replace a retiree with a 40-year tenure. At the time, few of the team had graduate degrees, and many were part-time. After COVID we are a smaller group, but the vast majority have one or two advanced degrees. Below are the four considerations we might incorporate into our search. What would you add?
- Doing everything we can to break down our own biases about age, experience, education, gender and race to make us open to the widest variety of applicants, and galvanize our future.
- Hiring for our vision statement–even if we never get there–not for our past, whether personal or collective.
- Having the self awareness and understanding who we are now, and what kind of leader we need now.
- Accepting that challenge and growth means discomfort, and that mediocrity is boring.
The rocking and rolling of the museum world continued this week. At least three museum directors left their positions, and multiple organizations, including Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Peabody Essex and the Georgia O’Keefe museums, announced they would undergo staff reductions. Museums are often the trailing indicator in economic crisis and now it’s clear even for those able to open how many visitors won’t come, and how bad the balance sheets will be.
Through it all tributes and solidarity for Black Lives Matter crowd social media. They are well intentioned, but I’m reminded of that writing adage, “Show, don’t tell,” and I wish I knew what museums are actually doing to change the unredeemed, genteel racism that pervades so many of our institutions. Because the real work, the work that matters to staff of color, and ultimately to visitors of color, happens far from social media. So here are some thoughts:
- The Gender Pay Gap: I first wrote about the gender pay gap on this blog in 2014. Since then I’ve written 10 columns about it. If museum leaders were to do one thing to demonstrate they really believe Black Lives Matter, it would be closing the pay gap. Black women are paid 61-percent of what non-Hispanic white men are paid. That means they need to work 19 months to equal every year of white male employment. That is inexcusable. And, according to the Economic Policy Institute, 55-percent of working black women are mothers, many primary wage earners. That means their wealth gap has a significant impact, not just for them, but on their families. If your museum hasn’t already graphed your staff salaries by race and gender, perhaps that should be on your to-do list. With that information in hand, you can work to level the playing field. Anything less supports the genteel racism the museum field has tolerated for more than a century.
- Collections: We know from last year’s Williams College study that art collections in US museums are 85.4-percent white and 87.4-percent by male artists. We know that gender and race equity in science research is an ongoing problem and likely influences how science is presented to the public. And we know the inclusion of additional narratives, whether race, gender or both, are frequently a problem for traditional heritage sites dominated by white, male narratives. And then there is decolonization, a particular problem for collections that once saw themselves as encyclopedic, accepting and exhibiting objects from indigenous cultures while eliminating their voices and stories. Not every museum can follow the Baltimore Museum of Art’s lead, selling work by men, to grow the percentage of women artists, and women artists of color, in their collections. Changes like that take money, yes, but also extensive planning. Do the planning now, and re-write the narrative. Why? Because Black Lives Matter.
- The DEI Position: If you’re museum is lucky enough to have a Diversity position in this age of recession and furloughs, there’s still work to do. White museum leadership, boards, staff, and volunteers still need to grapple with their own roles and their own behaviors. And if you don’t have a DEI position, for the love of God, don’t burden a staff person, who also happens to be black, with that role. They’re navigating their own path as part of the 11-percent of black museum staff nationally. They don’t need to be a spokesperson for racial identity without compensation.
- The Other Pay Gap: The Bureau of Labor Statistics, who tabulates who’s working in the museum field and what they make, tells us our median compensation is $49,850 or roughly $24 an hour. In other words, we’re not a high-paying field. One of the by-products of the COVID-19 layoffs and furloughs is worker protests. In New York City, Minneapolis and elsewhere we’ve seen museum workers using an organization’s 990 forms to publish executive compensation numbers in contrast to hourly, front-facing staff pay. Many of those staff have graduate degrees and yet their take-home pay is perilously close to Federal poverty lines. If a museum director makes $750,000 with benefits, but her front-facing staff makes $12/hour with no benefits, is her pay too high or is their pay too low? Isn’t it time museums as a group talked about this and grappled with a recommended ratio? Boards aren’t usually fans of unions, and yet the reason staff join unions is because they need and want a living wage and benefits.
Talk is cheap. For organizations and individuals what you do is in many ways more important than what you say. If your organization believes Black Lives Matter, than show your staff and your community the steps you plan to take. Be the organization you say you are.