What a week it has been. A pandemic, a stock market dive, a national state of emergency, and oh yes, a presidential primary. As we look ahead, many of us find our normal work world contracting. Conferences have been cancelled. Face-to-face meetings postponed. We’re trading office hours for work from home, conducting meetings via Zoom, and keeping our distance when out and about in the world.
As grim and scary as the news has been, in many ways, this situation is what leadership is all about. A crisis forces you to examine your organization from 37,000 feet. Like a chess player, you realize moving one way makes this happen, moving another initiates a different set of circumstances. And you make choices. With your team, you figure out how to proceed while being the best museum or heritage site you can. No one wants a national emergency, but if you ever needed to understand why leadership is a daily practice, not a goal, this is it. And if you’re prepared, your organization will echo your behavior.
One of the things that comes to the fore in a crisis, is how your team thinks. You’re probably aware who among your colleagues is a big-picture thinker and who quickly wallows in details. Use those skills. Everyone likes to succeed, and if you play to people’s strengths, you’ll get better, faster results.
Through it all, remember your staff. Your whole staff, not just the leadership team. As far as I know collections can’t catch COVID-19. People can. This is the moment to be the leader who acted humanely, the person who advocated for paid time off for hourly staff who may not have any, the person willing to adjust HR’s policy on telecommuting rather than assuming it just leads to colleagues watching Netflix in their bathrobes. This is the time to re-write the rules particularly if it protects the very staff who serve the organization. So protect your people by putting their health first.
About a month ago, before the world turned upside down, Caroline Baumann, then director of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum abruptly resigned. Baumann’s resignation was sudden, arriving with absolutely no information. A week later, there was more context. She was outed ostensibly by a whistleblower and charged with conflict of interest around the circumstances of her 2018 wedding. First, the Smithsonian suggested Baumann’s dress, from designer Samantha Sleeper, which retailed for $3,000 cost Baumann $750. Getting a special occasion dress at a bargain price isn’t an ethical breach, but the Smithsonian and the whistleblower accused Baumann of providing Sleeper with a free ticket to a Cooper Hewitt event. In addition, it was suggested that the location of Baumann’s wedding ceremony (not the reception) was also a quid pro quo as she received it for free from a Long Island non-profit and then subsequently offered them meeting space for their board meeting.
There are a few leadership lessons here. The first is if you’re a director it isn’t just conflict you need to be mindful of, but also the appearance of conflict. Second, as important as it is to have whistleblowers, they too can be flawed individuals, and looking for conflict is easier if you’re already angry at your museum. I’m not suggesting this particular whistleblower was disgruntled, but it’s one more thing leaders need to bear in mind, and if there is no appearance of conflict, there’s no way a whistleblower can misuse the process. Next is the lesson that no matter what role you play as museum director–whether it’s a city the size of Manhattan or a small town–there needs to be a firewall between your personal life and your work life. Baumann claims the Cooper Hewitt’s PR consultant encouraged her to “shed light on her personal life.” This resulted in the Cooper Hewitt highlighting Baumann’s wedding.
The last, and for me the most interesting, is the glaze of gender politics over Baumann’s resignation. The Cooper Hewitt lost six trustees who resigned in anger, a boatload of money from each of them, and a 19-year employee who had risen to be director, and who outwardly had done an exemplary job. The failed novelist in me has tried again and again to imagine this scenario happening to a man. It’s not impossible, but it is unlikely.
Is it possible that while the Smithsonian followed its necessary protocols, its investigation wasn’t without bias? Was there implicit bias on the part of the investigators and the inspector general leading to a less than nuanced outcome? It’s likely we’ll never know. What we do know is women leaders walk a different path than their male counterparts. As Kaywin Feldman concluded in her 2016 AAM keynote: “Our society will not benefit from the leadership of female museum directors, across all types of museums, of all sizes, until museum boards are more cognizant of their internal biases, and tendency to dismiss female leadership styles.”
Image: Anchorage Daily News
If leaders were cartoon characters, they’d have heads topped with arrows instead of hair. Why? Because whether they mean to or not, leaders exude direction. They are points on the organizational compass. And when direction isn’t clear there are plenty of folks in the hallway, around the coffeemaker or after meetings to interpret what has or hasn’t been said. That’s a preface to what follows, meaning I may not be correct. After all, I’m only an observer.
If you couldn’t attend last week’s meeting of the American Association of State and Local History in Philadelphia, it was a good one. Anchored by the indomitable Eastern State Penitentiary, and the city’s other national historic sites, not to mention its many museums, the conference drew a large crowd. The theme was “What Are We Waiting For?” but the subtext was certainly history’s importance in understanding the present. It was there in the keynote, moderated by Sean Kelly, Director of Interpretation at Eastern State Penitentiary, and featuring Susan Burton, a Los Angeles-based writer and prison reform activist whose memoir details a 20-year cycle of addiction, pain, sadness and prison, and Dr. Talitha LeFlouria, a University of Virginia associate professor, and author of Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South, where the arrow pointed directly from centuries of enslavement to decades of mass incarceration. And it was also there in Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s myth-toppling speech about George Washington’s obsessive search for his runaway slave Ona Judge. And, I’m sure it was there in the many panels, tours, and countless conversations as conference attendees struggled, argued, and supported one another in connecting past and present. If you want to interpret those directional signals, what you might say is the complacent, white, male narrative of the past is disappearing, replaced by a host of other black and brown voices, from individuals who’ve been here months, and those whose past stretches back to enslavement or others whose land was stolen, and they lived out their days on reservations.
For me though there was another signal: The four panels and one workshop that addressed women in the history museum workplace. Anne Ackerson and I have written and spoken about this topic for almost seven years, and in that time there were more than a few moments when getting one panel on women’s issues for AASLH or AAM seemed like an achievement. So maybe I’m reading too much into this, but finding AASLH President John Dichtl in a panel titled “#MeToo: AASLH, NCPH and the Field” was a sea change. Perhaps it’s AASLH’s size and more cohesive membership, but its leadership is clearly listening to women’s issues in the field. When asked to post salary ranges in their job announcements, AASLH did. And their willingness to open the annual meeting to discussions about women’s leadership, sexual harassment in the field, and pay equity tells me they’re acknowledging that while the heritage organization/history museum workplace might not be Nirvana, they want to make it better.
So, here’s a thank you: Thank you for a great conference. Thank you to AASLH’s leaders and planners for changing the narrative; thank you for publicly acknowledging the consequences of workplace harassment, and gender pay inequity. Thank you to the male leaders who showed up to represent at four of the five sessions. Kudos to all the women who spoke, especially those brave enough to reveal personal stories.
One final plea though: Do something with what you learned. Commit to personal change. Be kind. Support one another. Don’t do it because someone’s different than you. Do it because you are colleagues. If you are a leader, and haven’t addressed the gender pay gap in your organization, do an equity audit. See how bad things are. If you don’t have a values statement or a statement about the kind of behavior you expect in your museum or heritage site, write one. Don’t wait ’til next year to hear it another time and realize 12 months went by and you didn’t move the needle at all.
Make change now. Do it as individuals, do it as organizations. To quote Enimini Ekong, Superintendent of Nicodemus National Historic Site and Chief of Education and Interpretation at Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, “Your observation is your obligation.” So for goodness sakes look and then act.
Applying for a new job is stressful, a time sponge, and from an organizational point of view, costly. For an individual, even if it is done as much to exercise a muscle as out of need, it requires diligence, self-awareness, and confidence. If you interview as female, it’s even more challenging. Why? Because you have to walk a thin line between what you know, what you believe, and public perception.
I’ve spoken to a number of women in the museum and library fields about job interviews. These women aren’t novices. They all lead organizations or departments, and they are well read, not in the book group sense. Rather they read widely about leadership, and they’ve had opportunities to put what they read into practice. Before I go further, here are some givens about men and women in the job race. They are all supported by research, and I’ve included links so you’ll know I’m not just ranting.
- Men think they’re smarter than 66-percent of their peers. For women it’s less so, 54-percent.
- Women don’t think of themselves as ready for promotion and they consistently underestimate their talents. See #1 above.
- A lot of what’s happened in the American workplace has focused on “fixing” women, making them more like successful men, rather than simply leveling the playing field.
- Women are more frequently hired to take over organizations, departments or programs that are troubled than men are.
So what happened to the women I spoke with? These issues came to a head when they were faced with the proverbial interview question about change. It goes something like: “Based on what you’ve seen today, what is your vision for our organization, department, program?” Anybody who’s read anything about leadership knows that rapid change, particularly from a new hire, goes nowhere. These women knew that. Each gave an answer that was a variation of: change takes time, buy-in is important, describing how they like to observe, watch, listen and learn before experimenting, analyzing, testing again, and implementing. None of them got the job. The positions went to men.
Is it possible the men offered less measured and reasoned responses? Is it possible they replied with a laundry list of changes, delivered with a confidence and panache that was just what the interview committee wanted to hear even though few organizations–except the most desperate–can sustain wholesale hierarchical change?
I can imagine you eye-rolling here. How do you know, you ask? And you’re right. There are a million reasons for offering a job to one person over another. But is it possible that boards or hiring committees confuse confidence with competence? That a confident answer even if it flies in the face of every good leadership best practice is more acceptable than a more measured response? And might that be a gendered thing since we know men tend to sound more confident? In fact, if I were asked, going forward, I’d tell each of these women to answer that question differently. I’d tell them to practice sounding confident, responding with a vision statement and a list of areas that need experimentation.
Some final caveats: This isn’t about getting women to act more like men even though it seems that way. Successful women are confident, but the consequences of acting confident are different for men and women. Women are judged differently than men, and therefore answers to the most basic questions are heard differently. Women need to be twice as good to be seen as half as competent. All of this is 10 times harder and more complex for women of color, women who are overweight, women with disabilities, LGBTQ and transgender women because the opportunity for bias multiplies.
And lastly, if you are hiring:
- Remember, an interview is like a wedding. If that’s the happiest day of your life, you’re in trouble. Hire for the long haul, not the razzle dazzle. There are many who ace the interview, but there’s no there there when it comes to real leadership.
- Because the museum field is tipping so precipitously toward becoming a pink collar profession, hiring committees may think they’re doing the field a service by hiring a man. That may be. Just make sure the process is equitable. Tokenism is tokenism no matter who’s in the mix.
- Talk openly about issues of bias–where and how they appear–with your search committee before the process begins. You may want to use a bias exercise to help your committee understand where they are.
- Build a diverse interview committee that includes POC, the young, the experienced. Let the committee discuss its governance rules ahead of time. Make it a safe space where all thoughts are welcome.
- Discuss the difference between diversity and difference. Is your program, department or museum ready for a challenge? See suggestion #2.
- Be open. Remember it’s not just about you. It’s about your organization. Look for the person who will help your museum grow.
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.
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?