Although I hate the idea of March being the only month when women are the lead topic, it is an opportunity, so here goes. First, I want to acknowledge the hard work of my colleagues at GEMM (the Gender Equity in Museums Movement) in publishing its second white paper, Museums as a Pink Collar Profession.
GEMM’s paper poses some complex questions about our field. Among other things, it asks whether our long struggle with poor pay has its roots in issues of deep-seated bias, in many cases, benevolent bias. And, it asks whether that bias produced today’s workforce. I suspect the answer is yes.
In 1973 when the Women’s Caucus organized for the first time at AAM’s Annual Meeting, most of its participants were white. Today, some might identify as LGBTQ, but not then. Being out at work wasn’t always safe in 1973. The Caucus’s goals were simple and to be honest not dissimilar from GEMM’s today—support museum women, see them in positions of leadership, close the pay gap, work for decent benefits including maternity leave.
Although I can’t peer into the Caucus’s heads at a distance of 45 years, I’m pretty sure they weren’t thinking about women of color when they made their pitch to AAM. It may be due to the abysmal numbers of women of color in the field in 1973. It may also be due to the world they lived in and the baggage they carried. But they opened the door. They created a platform where the rest of us–white women, women of color, the LGBTQ community, and those with disabilities–stand advocating for workplace equity.
But to return to the white paper: Today, after 46 years, the museum world’s workforce is almost equally balanced for gender. Hooray. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2018 women comprised 49.5-percent of museum workers . That’s the good news. The bad news is it’s still a very white profession. Overall, the BLS tells us, 10.5-percent of museum workers are black, and 13.8-percent Latinx, neither approaching the national averages of 13.4-percent and 18-percent respectively, particularly since too often people of color serve museums in positions where they have responsibility but not authority.
Pause for a minute, and think about how decades of poor pay affects museum workers. According to the BLS, in 2017 a museum worker’s median pay was $48,000/yr. That is significantly below the average American’s 2017 median income of $59,039. And it’s likely not the first time it’s happened since 1973. Are there consequences for decades of low pay? Yes. One result is the field’s long slow slide toward becoming a pink collar profession.
Another may be that engaged, smart, creative folks leave when they realize that after taxes, graduate school loans, rent, and childcare there isn’t much left. What does that mean for the workforce? Clearly it affects diversity: You need to be privileged, whether by birth, marriage or both to invest in graduate school and then accept salaries and benefits of less-than.
Poor pay puts a strain on workers. It also keeps people in the field too long. Many must continue working to make retirement more than an exercise in how not to finish life in poverty. Think I’m kidding? If you don’t make much, you don’t have much to put away. Then there is the gender pay gap. If the median salary for all museum workers in 2017 was $48K, then, accounting for the pay gap, for white women it was $36, 000. But the gender pay gap isn’t just about white women vs white men. It’s also about age, education, and most importantly race, so the gap for Black women is 39-percent, for Latinx women 47-percent.
There is plenty to say about the museum workplace that isn’t about gender. And there’s plenty to say about gender that’s true for women everywhere, not just museum land. The gender gap exists everywhere. Statistics show women value job flexibility more than men, perhaps because women are still the primary care givers, whether for children or elderly family members. As a result they often accept lower pay rates in exchange for increased flexibility at work. Has this struggle for enough time–time to have a child, time to raise a child, or time to care for a sick family member–artificially depressed wages? And given our money-conscious society, do the museum world’s low wages devalue our profession?
So what are we left with? We have a workplace perilously close to majority female overall, and already dominant female in many positions, and we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that occupations with more women pay less. We have a workplace created, benignly, benevolently in some cases, with a minefield of road blocks. The entrance ticket is a graduate degree. Once in the door, you discover a world where salaries are often confidential, with employees unaware that others in similar roles might receive far higher pay. You may suspect there’s a gender pay gap at your institution, but have no way to find out. You may uncover a world of staff offices and meeting rooms that are far more traditional, hierarchical, and patriarchal than you anticipated or could have imagined. You may find yourself sweetly, kindly, mansplained through staff meetings or told not to make a fuss if you experience bias because of your race or your gender or both.
Can the field change? We’d like to think so.
If you’re an individual:
- Be knowledgeable about museum salaries: Read Museums as a Pink Collar Profession. Know what it costs to live in your area, Use the AAM salary survey and know what others in your position make.
- Read your organization’s HR/personnel policy. Know what it means to you if you want to go back to school, become a parent, or need to care for an elderly relative.
- Know what to do if you’re harassed at work. Will you be supported?
- Stand up for your colleagues. #Enoughisenough
If you’re an organization:
- Do an equity salary audit. Look for inequities based on age, race, gender and power. Think about the relationship between the executive director’s salary and the lowest FT staff member. Solve these equity issues first. Raises are meaningless if they perpetuate the pay gap.
- Create a value statement about how your museum or heritage organization expects its employees to behave. Stand behind it.
- Review your HR/personnel policy. Does it reflect your whole staff or just some of them?
- Stand up for your staff. And if you’re the organization that pays equitable wages, say so. How different would that be in a job advertisement?
Let’s not wait another 11 months to talk about women’s issues in the museum workplace. They’re here, they’re now. Nowhere are they more obvious than the paycheck, which is tangible proof of bias and inequity. Let’s change that.
Sometimes people contact Leadership Matters with thoughts about blog posts. A few weeks ago a friend, a museum thought leader, suggested we speak with someone. Our friend felt this person was worth hearing. And she was right. The interviewee asked for anonymity, but here is what we can say: She uses the pronouns she/her. She worked full time in the museum business for more than a decade. Partnered and a parent, she left the field. She is articulate, thoughtful and self-aware. What gives her story such resonance is not its uniqueness so much as its sameness. And that’s the sad part. It’s 2019. The Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution was introduced almost a half-century ago and remains unrealized, yet, as of 2018, women comprised nearly half the American workforce.
As we’ve said before, women’s narratives in the museum workforce is a Ground-Hog day tale. Not only do experiences repeat themselves over generations, as our interviewee points out, too often harassment doesn’t arrive in the overt ways we’ve seen on television or watched in Congressional testimony. Too often it’s the death of a thousand small cuts. “When you sit underneath the best of the male directors,” she says, “He seems so woke and he’s not touching you under the table.” Her experience though leads her to ask whether too many museum leaders want diversity conceptually, but are ill-prepared to truly lead a diverse organization.
“My experience, ” she said, “led me to fall out of love with my museum.” She describes her former boss as someone who hired women and promoted women, and whose outward-facing reputation was good. But behind the curtain this director displayed many of the subtle gendered characteristics that foster a climate of bias. Oh, lots of men–especially older men–do that you say. You’ve got to roll with the punches. But here’s what happens: Women are told they can’t show emotion; they’re told not to stand up for female staff when inappropriate remarks are made. In other words many of the characteristics that make our interviewee (and possibly you) a successful museum leader–compassion, passion, clarity of thought, cooperation–are the same characteristics that despite success and promotions are not actually valued, but instead are used to target women.
“How can we begin to identify patterns if we can’t talk about them?” our interviewee asked. “When are we going to admit that our internal practices are a problem?” Sadly, her experience with 21st-century bias and harassment didn’t end when she left her full time position. In fact, the museum recruitment process delivered another complex set of challenges. While search firms and museums talked about diversity and inclusion, she describes her journey as “Making it to the end, but not to the choice.” Recruiters told her what to wear for final stage interviews, asked for previous W-2’s as proof of salary, made biased statements regarding work she’d previously undertaken, and allowed board interviewers to ask about her marital status and children. Perhaps most telling, both the recruiters and the museum kept pressing our interviewee for a vision. Could she have come up with a meaningless one-liner? Certainly. Did she? Not really. Reflecting on it today, she says, “This isn’t how I work. I would have spent a year watching and listening, and then we [she and her new organization] would create a vision together.”
Please don’t dismiss that last bit as the whining of a disgruntled applicant who didn’t get the job. That’s not the point. What’s important is her statement “This is not how I work,” because it’s how many women work. Studies show that women lean toward flat, task-focused, collaborative organizational structures. Men, on the other hand, lean toward the transactional and hierarchical, with a focus on performance and competition. Ignorance regarding these issues makes for a clumsy, biased hiring process.
Museums and heritage organizations shell out tons of money to recruitment firms. And even if they don’t use a firm, the entire process of hiring takes time and therefore money. If you’re going to pay a firm, shouldn’t you receive transparent, equitable guidance? People who will help your board not ask women whether their husband will allow them to move? Yes, our interviewee did get that question. No, she didn’t go up in flames. But honestly. Has the needle moved at all?
This brings us back to the initial question. If we don’t talk about these things because we hope for promotion, don’t want to be a trouble maker or anticipate a future job search, how can we change anything? As I’ve said too often on these pages, bias and harassment is often delivered in a thousand tiny ways that constantly reinforce who has power and who doesn’t. It’s not just the province of men. Women do it too. And for those of us who are white and cisgender, there’s a whole other layer of inherent bias we carry with us directed, often implicitly, toward colleagues of color.
The museum field must stand up for women, all women, not just white ones. Can we legislate people’s feelings? No, but as a field we can say what we care about and what we believe in. How can AAM have a Code of Conduct that applies only to its annual conferences, but not to its membership?
- Understand what implicit bias or second-generation discrimination in the workplace looks like. It’s not only inappropriate touching or racially charged language. It’s the death of a thousand cuts, and the odds are, you have colleagues of color and/or female colleagues who are experiencing the effects of it.
- Support your friends and colleagues. If you hear hate or inappropriate speech, say something.
- Learn to recognize your own biases. If you find yourself admiring your male boss who roars, but not the female leader who roars, ask why. Emotion is emotion. Why is women’s tied to hormones and men’s to courage?
- Ask yourself what you can risk to support others. This is a small, tight field. Becoming a leader is a tricky business. If you’re the person known for saying the emperor has no clothes, will you ever get promoted? Are you counting on someone else to be that person?
- Find resources and participate through Gender Equity in Museum’s Movement (GEMM); Museum Hue, Incluseum; AAM, AASLH, AIC, and other national, regional, and state professional associations.
As some of you may know, Anne Ackerson and I traveled to Waco, Texas last week to deliver the Largent Lecture for the Baylor University Museum Studies Program. In addition, we sat in on two classes, one in historic preservation, as well as the Program’s capstone class for second-year students. Our topic? Gender and the Museum Workplace.
First, I should note that our invitation came after we gave the keynote at the Texas Association of Museums (TAM) last year in Houston. The point here is not to toot our own horn, but Texas’s. People on the east coast (where we live) can sometimes be a little snarky about Texas, but what other state or regional museum association has taken the issue of gender, diversity, and the workplace and made it a focus? (Stay tuned because TAM has more programs ahead.) So if you identify as a woman, and you feel as if the issue of workplace harassment and the pay gap are Ground-Hog day stories whose narratives don’t change except to cause you daily pain, know that at least one state museum organization is putting this issue front and center.
Since our audience was largely graduate students–many of whom are women– we had to walk the line between truth–this can sometimes be a difficult field that’s not particularly well-paid–and enthusiasm for careers we love and support. How do you tell a group of graduate students completing their master’s degrees, that it’s not always Nirvana out there?
When you begin in a field, you focus on content. After all, it’s what drew you to that particular sector in the first place. You can’t wait to…. insert one: catalogue a collection, do research, design an exhibit, conceptualize an exhibit, teach students, children, and families in museum spaces; wear a costume, learn to plow a field with a team of oxen. Few graduate students will tell you they can’t wait to manage a staff, understand overtime rules, negotiate personnel changes or have key board members resign. And yet, as we all know, the further you go in any career, the further you move from what brought you there in the first place, and the more time is taken with human interaction and thinking about the big picture. We’re told–and why wouldn’t it be true?–that in the first years of Amazon, Jeff Bezos packed the books himself and drove them to the post office.
The Baylor students had read some of Women in the Museum. In addition, they’d talked about some of the ethical and historical reasons for the museum field’s issues with sexual harassment, the gender pay gap, and its slow, inexorable turn toward becoming a pink collar profession. Our discussion focused on how, armed with that knowledge, they could be intentional about shaping their careers, be knowledgable about pay, and practice for interviews and pay negotiations. Trying to be hopeful, we opined that change will surely come, likely from their generation. There were a few pointed sighs in the room.
So…if you, like Baylor’s second-year students, will enter the job market this spring for the first time, we recommend:
- Getting a copy of the AAM Salary Survey Cross-reference that data with other museum, nonprofit and allied career salary data from your community or state. The more data points you can consult, the stronger your case for your salary ask. Know what to expect salary-wise for your job choice before you’re called to interview.
- Know what it will cost you to live where you’d like to work. Use MIT’s Living Wage Calculator (updated 2017) or the Economic Policy Institute’s calculator (updated 2018).
- Use these figures as guard rails for subsequent compensation discussions.
- Don’t think because you’re 24 and still on your parent’s health insurance that having no health benefits is acceptable. It is not.
- Ask to meet the people you’ll be working with. Ask them how work gets done, how new ideas are nurtured, and where do they go if there are HR problems? Be alert to silence and eye rolling.
- No offer is perfect. Negotiate. If you won’t be able to live on what’s offered without a second job, be prepared to walk away. And tell them why.
And if you’re hiring newly-minted graduates:
- Use the AAM Salary Survey. Be able to talk knowledgeably about where your salaries fall versus the local and national figures.
- Know what other benefits are on the table and how they differ from your competition, either local museums or nonprofits.
- Provide time for your interviewee to meet the people s/he/they will work with.
- The power balance is especially acute for first-time hires: Make sure you and your staff know an illegal question from a legal one.
- Review your interview process for unconscious bias. You can also have your staff and board take Harvard’s implicit bias tests.
Based on the 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics figures the museum field is 50.1-percent female. And based on our 2018 survey of 700-plus humans, as well as nikhil trevidi and Aletheia Wittman’s 2018 survey of approximately 500 respondents, sexual harassment is alive and well in the museum field. As leaders, let’s do our best to make first-time job seekers’ journeys a smooth one and educate ourselves, our staffs, and our boards in the process.
Image: Most Frequent Forms of Gender Discrimination (in the museum workplace), from THE SURVEY: Gender Equity in the Museum Workplace, conducted by Anne W. Ackerson and Joan Baldwin, 2018.
Last week, I participated in a panel at the Southeastern Museums Conference in Jackson, Mississippi. Organized by Heather Nowak and titled “Women on the Rise,” the panel included AAM President Laura Lott, Betsy Bradley, Director of the Mississippi Museum of Art, and me. I was there not in my Leadership Matters capacity, but as the co-author of Women in the Museum, and one of the co-founders of the Gender Equity in Museums Movement (GEMM). The audience was all women.
Laura Lott opened the session, speaking about AAM’s salary survey, but perhaps most importantly about the gender bias she encountered serving on a national search committee. She also spoke about being a working mother, and the times when she’s ended up bringing her child to work. Lott’s background is in finance, and I don’t think I’m misquoting her when I say she’s still surprised at how patriarchal and old-fashioned the non-profit world is around issues of gender.
I spoke second, reviewing some of the myths associated with gender in the museum world — myths about pay equity, about feminism itself — and the fact that the Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that women are now 50.1-percent of the museum workforce. The latter is particularly disturbing since a pink collar field is not necessarily a healthy field, and with wages in the museum world already suppressed, trending toward all-female could be the final nail in the salary coffin.
Betsy Bradley closed the session. Tall and elegant, Bradley describes herself as a polite Southern woman. She’s lived and worked in Jackson, MS, most of her adult life. After outlining her career, Bradley talked about three things: Not feeling guilty about being a working parent; asking for what you want; and #MeToo. Her #MeToo story was so unexpected that the room, which included several of Bradley’s staff, fell silent. Following the incident, Bradley took care of herself, but she told only a few people, two board members and a family member. Ultimately the accused resigned his position.
Our session took place a week after Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. No matter where your allegiances lie, for many, Ford’s testimony brought back their own experiences with sexual harassment and assault. Tuesday in Jackson, MS nerves were raw So it is no wonder that during the concluding Q&A, the second question never really got asked because the woman, who’d been assaulted, broke down while trying to speak.
My question to all of you is how long can this go on? We like to say how much we love our work, how important it is, how special and wonderful the museum field is, and yet two 2018 surveys, one by Anne Ackerson, and one by nikhil trivedi and Aletheia Whitman report that 49-percent and 55-percent respectively of museum workers identifying as female have experienced sexual harassment, assault or abuse. So when is enough enough? If you or your organization is looking to make change, we suggest……
- Make sure your board understands that operating a museum or heritage organization means Title VII or the EEOC apply to you. You owe it to your organization to know how.
- Create or update your HR policy. Make sure you and the Board know what steps an employee who’s experienced sexual harassment should take. Is the reporting system clear, understandable and equitable?
- Talk with your staff leaders. Help them understand that if 50-percent of museum workers experience sexual harassment, assault or abuse, they need to know how to deal with it. Suggesting an alleged victim go talk to her alleged harasser is not the answer. People who’ve been hurt, violated and humiliated aren’t interested in being hurt, violated and humiliated a second time.
- Make sure your organization stands for something. Do you have a values statement? Is it clear you stand for a code of behavior? It’s hard to excuse or explain sexual harassment, when an organization is clear from the beginning about its code of conduct.
There are a lot of issues that swirl around gender in the museum workplace, but no one should come to work to be hurt, abused or harassed. Museums and heritage organizations have been complicit in a system that oppresses women for too long. We’re overdue for change.
All good stories have a truth that makes them resonate beyond the moment. Two weekends ago, Serena Williams lost the semi-final match at the U.S. Open. While that alone might have been news, what clogged social media was the fact that Chair Umpire Carlos Ramos warned her after her coach allegedly gestured to her from the side lines. She responded angrily and was subsequently docked a point after smashing her racket. The exchange continued when she called Ramos a thief and a liar, and was further punished. Later, Williams suggested that similar behavior by male tennis players is overlooked. Lost in the narrative was Williams calming of a sometimes angry crowd, and gracious support for her opponent, Naomi Osaka.
Whether you follow the arcane and sometimes hierarchical rules of professional tennis is not the point. What we should focus on here, and what resonated for many women is the fact that public expression of anger is strongly governed by gender rules. To put it more bluntly, it’s easier for men to get angry at work than for women, and make no mistake, Serena Williams was at work. Study after study shows us that when men get angry they are perceived as more believable, more authentic, and sometimes more powerful. In one study conducted by Harvard’s Women and Public Policy Program, male job applicants who expressed anger were more likely to be hired than women. Women, on the other hand, are termed emotional, overheated, and abrasive. Their expression of anger, which runs counter to gender expectations, decreases a woman’s status, power, and competence.
What’s most interesting about men, women and anger is that men’s anger is perceived as a response, as in “You made me so mad,” as opposed to women’s anger which is understood as internal, as in, “You’ve really got a short fuse.” If you are a woman or identify as one, and work in the museum world, have you ever been chastised for being too emotional? Have you been told to smile? To calm down? To not be so upset? Or perhaps someone suggested you take a moment while you get yourself together?
It took generations for this gender divide over anger to grow, and it’s not going to go away this year. That means if you’re a woman or identify as one, you need ways to navigate the moments when you are angry. Some tips:
- Know what your triggers are. Maybe one of your direct reports drives you crazy, can’t answer questions, is dreamy, remote, and disconnected. Not a bad person, but on a bad day, she sends you right over the edge. Understanding that ahead of time, means you can reschedule a meeting with her if the entire rest of your day has gone south.
- Don’t go in hot. Also known as take a breather. Give yourself some space. Whether it’s a passive-aggressive email, a hurtful comment, ongoing eye-rolling, or being shut-out of a conversation again, give yourself some space. Take a walk. Get a coffee. Breathe. You don’t have to let go of your anger, you have to understand it.
- Think ahead about what you want to say vs. what you need to say. Don’t rant about the fact that the gala is in 36 hours and how suddenly you’ve been asked to revise a foundation request that was badly done (by someone else) in the first place. Try to focus on your organization and what’s best for it–how to get both things completed in a short time–rather than your hurt and betrayal at being asked to shore up a colleague’s failures yet again. By not focusing on your anger, you’re more likely to get help, and to create a climate where colleagues may be alert to the situation happening again.
- Support your colleagues: One of the other things studies show us is that while men’s anger and women’s anger are treated differently in the workplace, we also learn that many times both men AND women scorn women who are angry. Again, especially if you are a museum leader, look for the reason the woman is angry rather than the fact that she’s expressed it. Find out what is going on.
- Grow some empathy. Imagine that you’re a woman who’s been hired at a lower rate than her male colleague and knows it. Imagine that you’re a woman who’s been left out of conversations and information by male colleagues who subsequently use your knowledge gap to punish you. Imagine you’re a woman whose ideas are constantly reformulated at the staff table by a male colleague as his own. Imagine you hear inappropriate jokes at lunch objectifying women. Imagine all of that. Now imagine you’re a woman of color at work in a museum. Do we need to ask why you (or Serena Williams) might be angry?
Remember what writer Soraya Chemaly said this week in the Guardian,
“It is vital that we don’t have one-size-fits-all feminism,” she says. “It will fail and exacerbate problems. People were surprised by the percentage of college-educated white women who voted for Trump. But a white woman grappling with gender inequality might be angry, and she can leverage racial privilege to compensate for her losses. Women have always been levers of white supremacy in US culture. That does not mean that they do not themselves suffer from oppression. White women understanding how their fragility is used to enforce racism is an important lesson, which is a hard one to talk about.”
How do you manage anger in the museum workplace?
Full disclosure: We’re white. In addition, we’re straight, and we’ve been in this field a long time. That means for some of you, we’re old enough to be your grandmas. We’re putting that out there because a) knowledge is power and b) in the age of Facebook, you may want to measure your response to issues of gender (and race) based on who’s doing the talking. So here are a few thoughts about women and the museum world in response to recent happenings.
- First, kudos to AASLH for insisting that museums and heritage organizations advertising on its Career Center page must now post salary ranges. Leadership Matters has long lobbied for wage increases in museum salaries, but understanding salary is tricky when organizations aren’t transparent about what they pay. And what does this have to do with women? A lot. Women are not paid equitably in this field or any other. Before you eye roll, and say that’s not true, it is. If you don’t believe us, Google it. Everyone from Pew Charitable Trusts to The New York Times has written about it many times over. And it’s important here because that $1/85-cent gap isn’t only about white women versus white men, it’s about white men and Latina women, for example, where Latina women make 53.8-cents for every white man’s dollar.
By posting salary ranges AASLH provides a framework and a mutual understanding about what’s on the table ahead of the hiring process. That helps applicants, but particularly women, negotiate. The Wage Gap didn’t happen overnight, and according to some agencies, it will take centuries to fix. While we wait, a big thank you to AASLH.
- Our friend and colleague Bob Beatty put our recent post on social media. Having Bob post something is meaningful because he reaches a lot of people. Not surprisingly, one of his readers responded. He asked whether graduate programs in museum studies were as overwhelmingly female as they appear, and whether AASLH or anyone had figures to prove that? He also said that his own museum is 77-percent female. He thinks someday soon his institution (and many others) might be majority female, thus (he said) ending the gender equity problem. He remarked that “demographics is destiny,” meaning that a lot of women or maybe just a homogeneous workplace equals an equitable one. Last, he suggested that for Leadership Matters to imply that there are still boatloads of bias in the museum field was hyperbole.
Here’s our answer:
- An all-female field is not something anyone should wish for. It’s professional suicide. Traditionally female fields like nursing and libraries are known as pink collar fields. These jobs are traditionally devalued in the economy. (I know–eye roll here–who doesn’t value a nurse, but it’s true.) According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the museum field is 46.7-percent female, meaning it’s at a tipping point, but not entirely pink yet.
- Statistics from graduate schools are hard to come by. We don’t know any service organization who’s tried to count the number of students in the pipeline much less their gender. Given that more women than men go to college and graduate school, it wouldn’t surprise us if museum studies programs are disproportionately female, but, again, that’s not healthy. Healthy and creative fields are equitably balanced for gender, race, and age.
- Don’t conflate demographics with equity. We could have a 77-percent female field and men would still be paid more, and hold the highest paying positions. See our comment above on the gender wage gap. Nor does a majority female field eliminate bias.
- Channel your empathy. “A boatload of bias” may seem harsh from where a (white?) male writer sits. And he may be kind, empathetic, and humble, but until he (or anyone of privilege) tries to understand the way the museum field’s unconscious bias ambushes people of color, and LGBTQIA+ employees, the boatload of bias will remain an impenetrable mystery to him. Although getting woke can be uncomfortable, we recommend “I Am the Person Sitting Next to You,” from the blog Incluseum as a place to start.
Last, a month or so, we posted the infographic above. We also sent it to service organizations and numerous media outlets because we’d just finished a survey of more than 700-plus museum workers. The results were disturbing. Yet, it prompted no response from AAM, AASLH or AAMD. What does that say about the field? Does the fact that 62-percent of our respondents have experienced or witnessed gender discrimination not matter? And if 62-percent of museum workers experience gender discrimination, how are those problems compounded for persons of color, native/indigenous women, LGBTQIA+, and non-binary, non-conforming persons? How should we interpret that silence?
It’s AAM week–the annual conference of the American Alliance of Museums. This year AAM is in Phoenix where it was (no lie) 110 degrees Fahrenheit on Sunday. Because Leadership Matters is also a co-founder of GEMM we devoted ourselves to AAM’s diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion initiatives.
We started with “Beyond Diversity,” AAM’s DEAI working group. Led by Dr. Nicole Ivy, AAM’s Director of Diversity, four members of the working group talked about their six-month journey creating a shared vocabulary and basic principles to guide museum professionals in incorporating DEAI in their workplaces. Dr. Johnnetta Cole called the dialog around the table energizing, embodying what it meant to be “the other.” She reinforced the experimental nature of the process by recollecting a quote from her own mother and quoting Zora Neale Huston, who said that “if you jump for the sun and don’t make it, at least you get off the ground.”
Several of the panelists pointed out their work was an iterative process that succeeded because their team worked so hard. Nonetheless, at the conclusion of their comments, audience members challenged them, and by extension AAM, asking what AAM’s role would be in making change? One questioner said that she’d been in the field for five years, but wasn’t sure if she would stay because salaries are so low she isn’t sure she can afford it. Panelists deflected her question, responding that their job wasn’t to actualize, it was to frame the questions.
The following day we and GEMM joined other diversity and inclusion initiatives at AAM’s Diversity Forum. Each group made a brief presentation about its goals and work. Then participants moved from table to table, moving in and out of conversations. At the GEMM table women spoke about the pay gap, salary negotiations, and the rigors of combining parenthood with work. Participants allied over common problems, what to do about low salaries, and how to advise the next generation of museum professionals. Hopefully, the women who participated in the GEMM conversation left with renewed confidence and a sense of support.
It’s impossible to talk about the first full day of AAM sessions and not mention the opening session and the keynote. Certainly the moment when Hallie Winter, Curator at the Osage Nation Museum, received the Nancy Hanks award was a high point. The Hanks award goes to a museum professional who’s been in the field less than 10 years, and recognizes a specific achievement that benefits either the honoree’s home institution or the museum field in general. In a short video and in person, Winter’s brief acceptance speech was heart-breakingly wonderful, reminding all of us why we do what we do.
Then came Kevin Jennings’ keynote. Holy smokes. There are speakers and then there are the ones who get you where you live. Jennings, a former teacher, non-profit director, and writer is the new president of The Tenement Museum in New York City. Weaving his personal history with the museum’s story, and placing them both against a back drop of the national narrative stretching from roughly 1900 to the present, Jennings asked his audience to see themselves (and their stories) as facets in a bigger chronicle.
It’s rare to hear such a personal speech that was packed with leadership lessons if you knew where to look. He made himself vulnerable. He was funny. How many of us are ready to show a huge audience our high school prom picture? He talked about loss. He wasn’t afraid to pause so his audience could comprehend a wrenching turn in the story. It is the way good teachers teach, mingling the now with the then so listeners understand the iterative nature of time. And it’s the way we all need to approach our work, with open arms and minds so our audiences hear the echoes of their own stories. If you weren’t in Phoenix yesterday, try to listen to this speech when AAM makes its recordings available. You’ll be glad you did.