In 2017 Anne Ackerson and I published Women in the Museum. One of our final chapters is titled “Ground Hog Day,” after the eponymous film with Bill Murray and Andie McDowell. We needed a title like that because in the years of fighting the gender battle in the museum workplace its problems remain relentlessly unresolved, raising its head, year after year, just like a virus.
Fifty years ago women’s leadership was still a question. Women museum directors were rare, and women leaders were often found in the second spot, being logistical titans all while providing the emotional glue and the soft skills to keep the museum workplace turning over and moving forward.
Today, things are different. There are many more women leaders–and not just white women, but women of color. But the underbelly of workplace gender issues–sexual harassment–is alive and well. For those of you who were off social media last week, the director of the Erie Art Museum, Joshua Helmer, found himself without a job after an article in The New York Times reported that in his previous position at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, multiple women had accused him of making inappropriate advances. When Helmer moved to the Erie (PA) Museum of Art in 2018, he continued his predatory pattern. This time involving a museum intern. The incident resulted in a Change.org petition and several articles by New York Times Reporter Robin Pogrebin. Indeed, the week ended with Philadelphia’s mayor, Jim Kenney, an ex-officio member of the PMA’s board, calling for it to strengthen its harassment policies. This led PMA director, Timothy Rub, to say, ““The mayor is right and as we have indicated, our policies are undergoing close review,” all while 240 members of his staff signed a statement in support of their colleagues and the women at the Erie Art Museum.
Neither the Erie Art Museum nor the Philadelphia Art Museum are unsophisticated organizations, and yet Joshua Helmer somehow victimized women at first one institution and then another. No matter who you are in the museum world–trustee, volunteer, leader, curator, guard, housekeeper, intern, educator–this is your problem. Workplace sexual harassment destroys the social trust that exists back stage in the museum workplace. Museum workers, regardless of their titles, deserve to be safe, seen, and supported.
As we’ve seen, sexual harassment scandals plunge museums and heritage organizations into a world of bad press, not to mention legal complications. So if you are a….
Museum Trustee: If you don’t already know, ask what your organization’s policy is on sexual harassment. Where is it written, how is it available to staff, and who handles complaints? Boards are not immune to bad behavior. As a group, how do you police yourselves? If you don’t have an HR office, where do complaints go? If your organization has an HR office, when was the last time your board or its personnel committee heard from the HR director on this topic?
Museum Leader: Do not say this won’t happen here. It happens everywhere. Review your organizational policy for sexual harassment; check-in with Human Resources and your leadership team. Make sure everyone understands what happens when a complaint is made. If appropriate, role play. No victim should be made to feel what’s happened to her is her fault. Make sure victims are treated with compassion. And further, make sure you know and have thought through how complaints involving the board, significant donors, and/or consultants will be handled.
Museum Worker: Go to bat for your colleagues. Speak up and intervene. If you don’t, no matter how you frame it, you are complicit. Know your organization’s policy; know what to do in the event of an incident. Know what kind of support is available through EEOC, and how your state defines sexual harassment. And know who in your city or town offers pro-bono legal services. And for goodness sake, sign the GEMM pledge.
Sometimes we’re so besotted with our roles caring for artwork, objects and living things, and placing them in dialog with one another that we forget our staff and colleagues. If you’ve been sexually harassed or victimized, it’s difficult, if not impossible to function at work. As a museum leader no one is asking you to serve as staff psychologist, but if a staff member seems “off,” ask whether it’s something work-related. Create an atmosphere where staff feel safe, seen and supported, make sure your policies are clearly written, easily available, and that they provide a road map for anyone experiencing harassment. It’s 2020. Aren’t we done with excuses?
Image: From the infographic, “The Survey: Gender Equity in the Museum Workplace,” 2018, by Anne W. Ackerson and Joan H. Baldwin.
First, an announcement: Leadership Matters will be on vacation for the weeks of Dec. 23 and Dec. 30. But, before we return January 6, 2020, we’d like to hear your wishes for the museum world for the coming year. They can be personal–I want a new job–or organizational–I hope my museum completes its campaign successfully–or field wide–I’d like to see museums take a stand on the gender pay gap. Send them, and any other thoughts you have about the museum field’s future to us here in a comment or directly to our email or Facebook where this is posted as well. Full sentences and punctuation aren’t necessary, just your hopes and dreams for the field.
A lot of museums, indeed a lot of workplaces, struggle with team building and trust, and one of the work-arounds leaders employ is to try to accommodate workers’ various needs. When you have a weeping or furious team member in your office, and a to-do list a mile long, what you want is to solve their problems and get back to your own. So you say yes to leaving Thursdays at three to drive the soccer car pool or to working from home a day a week. Your colleague leaves happy (or at least mollified), and you turn your attention to other things. Except decisions made in the moment to accommodate one frequently come back to bite you. Why? Because work isn’t family.
If we work full time, we spend up to 2,000 hours per year with our colleagues, some weeks more than with families and friends, particularly since time away from work includes sleep. So while many people like to tout work as family, and thus, just as we set the thermostat to 75 when our great aunt visits and serve her martini with four olives, we also try to accommodate our co-workers. But accommodating family is different from colleagues. Say a member of your team tells you she lives a distance from work, and may not be able to arrive on time if it snows. She is part of your front-line staff. On the face of it, that seems like a rational request. But what happens if you say yes? Another person who lives closer may feel a huge sense of inequity. The questions going through her mind are: Why is she privileged over me? Am I not valued? Do I need to look for another job? Is everyone asking for special accommodations and I didn’t know?
If you work in a museum or heritage organization with an HR department, it’s harder to privilege one employee over another because the employee handbook already spells out numerous scenarios–weather, health, funerals, working from home, and jury duty to name a few–and how individuals are compensated. Flouting these can lead to an even more complex mess since you’ll have one individual operating outside the organization’s HR parameters, while others abide by the museum’s rules. That doesn’t mean leaders shouldn’t treat employees with respect, empathy and kindness, but everyone should be privileged equally–those with small children, those without, those with long commutes and those who live around the corner. The only ones who should be specially accommodated are those with temporary or permanent disabilities. These requests may include specialized equipment or modifications in work environment.
So…if you’re a leader with a team or a staff….
- Even if your site has fewer than 15 employees and no HR department, create or review your organization’s employee handbook. Make sure it’s written in clear, understandable language. If you can’t understand it, it’s unlikely your employees will.
- Make sure it addresses common HR issues and what your organization will do about them. Kicking the can down the road means you will make decisions as they come up, rather than addressing them organizationally from the beginning. It’s hard to be objective and impartial when you are making decisions in the moment based on a single staff member’s situation.
- Create a personnel committee on the board. It may include the board leadership and/or those with interest and experience in HR.
- Seek advice from your local Chamber of Commerce, Better Business Bureau or HR firm.
- When altering handbook rules, be open and transparent about rule changes.
If you’re a staff member …
- Know your rights. EEOC’s Home Page is a good place to start.
- Find out if there is any kind of HR document–even a Google doc–that governs day-to-day work. If there is, read it.
- Before you approach the leadership, it’s helpful to know if you’re a trail blazer. For example, are you the first employee to ask for paternity leave, jury duty, or a parking accommodation?
- Or conversely, are you one in a long line of staff asking about a particular issue? Knowing whether your organization has a history may help you strategize your request. (Example: your museum’s staff is under 10 FT people. Six have requested maternity/paternity leave in the last year. Nobody’s gotten the same deal.)
A lot of museums and heritage organizations, often small ones, hide behind size (We’re too small) and the non-profit shield (We’re not a business) when it comes to HR issues. Size isn’t an excuse to treat employees inequitably. Do the best you can given your resources. Create policy first–even if it’s a one-page document–so you’re not reacting to individual problems in the moment. Be kind, be a good listener, be empathetic, but most of all be fair.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I hope you all read the letter from Esme Ward, director of the Manchester Museum (UK), published in Museum-ID Magazine. In it, Ward turns the fear-bound notion of returning objects brought or given to museums around the world from one of de-contextualization to one of connection. My favorite quote:
At their best, though perhaps all too rarely, museums can be spaces for identity-forming and truth-telling. They can ask “what is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves?” I believe that repatriation shifts the processes, language and thinking of the past towards a context of possibility and action for the future. Our museums can become places of genuine exchange and learning, reconciliation, social justice and community wellbeing.
You may think, nice, but that’s not my organization, but first, be sure. If you curate the collection of a wealthy white male, did he or his family travel? What did they bring home? Or if you manage collections in a general museum–the kind that functioned as a visible National Geographic for a small community–are you comfortable with the collection’s origin stories? But even more important, how can you as director, curator, or collections manager, shift the process, creating collaboration rather than a one-sided scenario where your organization puts a community’s stuff under vitrines and then tells their stories.
As you know I am not a Twitter fan, but this week I read a string of tweets prompted by @JuliaKennedy who asked for people’s most controversial opinions on the museum world. Her followers didn’t hold back. Comments ranged from ways museums discriminate against the disabled, to keeping too much old stuff, to decolonization. No surprise, there were any number of increasingly angry words about museum pay or the lack thereof, including unpaid internships, and fees to participate in museum volunteer programs. If you couple that with recent articles on museums and unions it’s a forest fire of discontent. Beginning with the Marciano Art Foundation, which became the poster-child for bad HR when it fired dozens of its front-line staff after they announced they planned to join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSME), to The New Museum, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, and the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, all now have staff who are union members.
Called a “movement not a trend,” by Artnet, the wave of unionization acknowledges the field’s wealth gap, which is most acute in the country’s large urban museums where front-line staff work for minimum wage and few, if any, benefits, while their directors may make 40 times that amount. Yes, the directors have huge, complex organizations to run. Yes, they do their jobs well. The judgement isn’t necessarily about them as humans. The judgement is about the gap, and the expectation that one person is compensated so well while everyone else should just be happy to be there, working an extra job or two to pay their student loans on the master’s degree the field requires as its entrance ticket.
Faced with unionization, leaders across the board, responded that museum culture is “special” and something unions can’s possibly understand. Mmmm. Really? Or is it just easier to ignore front-line staff’s issues rather than have a union force museum leadership to the table? This should be a warning call for all museum leaders. Yes, unionization is to-date confined to major urban organizations on the two coasts. But the problem of low salaries is endemic. You need only look at the Salary Spreadsheet created last spring. It now lists 3,652 postings from administrative assistants to assistant directors and more, and few are salaries you can gloat about.
As leaders isn’t it time you protect your investment in staff? They are, particularly if you also pay healthcare and some form of retirement, a huge portion of your annual budget. Assuming they’re good at what they do, don’t you want them to stay, to not spend idle hours at work trolling job sites, to be happy, to be creative? How can you not invest in them? Everybody wants a diverse workforce. It mirrors the communities we live in, and creates a better product, but a diverse workforce means museum staff is no longer the trust-fund generation or the my-partner-makes-six-figures-generation-so-I-can-afford-to-work-for $28,500-and-no-benefits.
Once again I call upon AAM to follow in the footsteps of the American Library Association whose professional companion organization, Allied Professional Association ALA-APA, adopted a minimum salary for professional librarians of $41,000 in 2007. (Side note: eight state library associations have their own minimums.) Why is this so hard?
Museum employees are the lifeblood of AAM, AASLH, and the state and regional museum service organizations. No one’s asking you to police salaries, only to stand with staff in acknowledging that the work we do, which is often awesomely wonderful, is worth more than we’re paid.
Images: Screenshots of responses to @JuliaKennedy’s invitation to share “most controversial opinions on the museum world”
Photo by Robert J Weisberg
To begin, I want to announce Gender Equity in Museums Movement’s (GEMM) Pledge to End Sexual Harassment in the Museum Workplace. GEMM released the Pledge November 12. It is available on its website and on Change.org. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are 338,000 museum employees in the United States. In 2018, 49.5-percent were women. Based on the two surveys conducted in 2018 by Anne Ackerson and me, and a second by nikhil trivedi and Aletheia Wittman, roughly 49-percent of those identifying as women reported experiencing verbal or sexual harassment at work. I don’t know about you, but for me that’s a shockingly high percentage.
Signing the pledge takes a few minutes. It asks signers to, among other things, refrain from sexist language, to be open to dialogue about museum workers’ concerns and needs, and to create and nurture workplaces free of sexual assault and understanding of consent. Maybe you’re not someone who signs things, maybe you believe sexual harassment doesn’t happen in museums or maybe you think it’s simply not your problem. The museum workplace is many things: It’s creative, sometimes inclusive, dynamic, frequently stressful, achingly beautiful, and filled with many big and small moments of discovery and learning. Sexual harassment doesn’t belong there. You are only one person out of 338,000, but by signing, you tell the world, and most importantly your co-workers, you will do your part. Join GEMM in pledging to help end workplace sexual harassment in museums and heritage organization. And don’t save it for later, do it today.
Last week I gave the keynote at the Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists (ARCS) meeting in Philadelphia. It was an honor and a privilege, but like any new experience, it made me think. Many of the attendees came from large museums–large enough where the curator or collections manager doesn’t wear a different hat depending on the day. Based on the crowd, many are women, and many are white. That doesn’t make them bad people, but they might be ground zero for the museum world’s old-school hierarchical leadership. Other front-facing departments–education, development, leadership–have diversified more quickly, but this world, on which so much depends–if you can’t find an object, it doesn’t matter how special a curator you are–is in some ways landlocked, caught in a century-old tradition of women caring for and organizing stuff.
That made me think for possibly the umpteenth time about leadership and hierarchy. When you think about diversity, what do you think of first? Be honest. Do you think about race? Gender? Age? You have heard me say–probably too often–how important it is to have everyone at the table, and yet creating a staff who represents your community is a challenge, but say you’re successful. Say your department is like a little utopian United Nations. Say they range from Millennials who tolerate Boomers, Christians who work along side Muslims, men who work respectfully with women, gender fluid folk with resolutely cisgender. But you’re all in the same department. How does an organization’s internal segregation and stratification affect the product, the idea making, the program, the exhibit?
None of this may apply if you work at a small museum. You may see your frontline staff daily, and they may also function as security. But what if you’re part of a larger organization? How often do you talk with staff outside your department about a project that affects them? Do you speak as equals or as one staff explaining its needs to another? All I’m suggesting is diversity and inclusion is more than just outward appearances. It’s more than the Instagram-able group around the table. It’s making sure varied constituencies across the museum or heritage organization have a voice. Maybe it bothers you that there are always folding chairs in your newly-redesigned admission area? Were your frontline staff part of the architects’ focus groups? How about your volunteer coordinator? Did anyone mention what percentage of your visitors are retired? That’s a banal example, but it speaks to how listening to many voices from across an institution makes it a better place. And breaking down hierarchical barriers is another avenue to creating a diverse and healthy workplace.
So….the intentional museum flattens hierarchies and contributes to diverse idea-building by allowing staff at all levels to:
- disagree with one another
- be themselves in the workplace
- contribute to the best of their abilities
This week I spent time with a consultant. She’s visited us before so we know her well. She’s wise and kind, but also direct. Her role is to provide us with a programatic review in preparation for hiring a new director in 2020. At one level it has a Fiddler on the Roof quality–you know, “Matchmaker, matchmaker make me a match, find me a find, catch me a catch–” but as with any possible hire, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes preparation too.
Part of that work is to make sure we understand our job descriptions, and how they co-join, creating a strong program. In our conversation she pointed out something so simple I can’t believe I never thought about it. First, she said our job descriptions were empty, anemic things. Then she asked whether we felt valued. We hemmed and hawed, answering sort of and maybe. Bear in mind, there were only three of us in the room. We’re the happiest team members: we love our work; we work well together; we get stuff done, and yet, we struggled with this question. Then she tied the two ideas together, suggesting the former — our bland and formulaic job descriptions, coupled with a general miasma of misunderstanding over what we do and what we’re capable of — left us under-valued. Fortunately, we’re self-directed, confident, and like I said, happy, so the question of value hasn’t been a huge issue, and yet, once she drew our attention to it, it’s hard to un-see.
So all of you out there in museum land: What about your sense of value and self-worth? Who tells you you’re doing a good job? And when was the last time you read your job description? Was it just before your potentially useless annual review when you tried to figure out how far you strayed from the way your position was originally advertised?
As a leader you report to someone higher up even if it’s your board, and you certainly have people reporting to you. If you feel valued, and value those working for and with you, stop reading. If you’re not sure, before you eye roll and say something about leaders are not counselors and your employees’ self worth is their problem, think about this: hiring costs money as does training. People need value and meaning in their lives, and if they can’t find it in your museum, there may be a larger problem.
So if you’re a museum leader, consider the following:
- Make sure your goals and expectations are clear: Write them down and rank them. That way employees, especially front-line employees who are the museum’s public face, don’t have to choose between competing expectations.
- Build a culture that acknowledges good work: sometimes it’s a simple thank you; another day it’s cider doughnuts for the team; or maybe the salaried staff takes the hourly staff’s jobs for an afternoon for work well done. Find your own way to say what your staff does matters.
- Increase staff visibility: When you have the opportunity, toot your team’s horn. Talk about what they do and why it has value. And make sure everyone’s contribution is acknowledged at the completion of an exhibit, program or campaign.
- Consider what you can do: Workplace wellness is one of the top concerns cited in Mercer’s 2018 Global Talent Trends survey of for-profit businesses, not to mention the numerous articles and posts in museum-related publications. Think about instituting an on-site health screening, a wellness challenge, or a paid hour a week of wellness time for employees to use. If museum leadership puts wellness on the table, that permits everyone to be concerned. Working a 12-hour day isn’t an option because–oh, you’re valued–and you need time away to re-charge and re-group.
And if you’re a staff member who’s under-appreciated:
- Talk to your boss. Does she know what you’re doing outside the lines of your job description? Bring your list of recent accomplishments. Does your job description need editing based on what you’re doing?
- This isn’t kindergarten and getting a gold star won’t give your work meaning. That comes from you. Carve out time for personal reflection, daily or weekly or even monthly. What went well? What gave you satisfaction? Pat yourself on the back when you get a win.
- Are your skills wasted? Is there a gap between your job description and your talents? If yes, talk to your boss. Maybe it’s time to alter your job description.
- And if not, know when it’s time to move on. People who love their work and their job, find meaning and value in what they do almost every day. There are a billion reasons to tell yourself you can’t change jobs. Do you tell yourself you should quit, but somehow looking for another job always moves to the bottom of the list? Figure out why, and then move toward something new and better.
In a few weeks it will be Thanksgiving when we gather with friends and family to say a collective thank you. Don’t wait ’til then. In fact, don’t wait. Tell your colleagues, your staff, and your board when they matter. Let them know they’re valued. Who knows maybe next time they’ll return the favor?
We’ve spent a lot of time on this blog describing the effect of Devil Wears Prada leaders on their staffs. Today though we’re offering a little air time, not to toxic bosses, but toxic staff. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the average American spends 44.4 hours a week at work. That’s 44.4 hours of disruption if you’re dealing with toxic employees. In addition, the Harvard Business Review, which defines toxic employees as folks who engage in behavior that is harmful to the organization or its people, helpfully points out these employees are also expensive. In fact, HBR says their behavior costs the average for-profit business $12, 489, while a superstar worker costs the business $5,303. In museum land where there is rarely money to burn, clearly it’s better to employ superstars.
There are as many types of toxic workers as there are humans. Their behaviors run the gamut from sociopathic harassers to individuals with poor or no time management, to the perennially disorganized, the angry, the victim–don’t worry about me, I’ll just work an extra 20 hours this week– to the party person, and everyone in between.
Unless you started your museum career a week ago, you’ve likely run across your fair share of toxic co-workers. If they’re your colleagues, perhaps you’ve learned to keep your distance or developed work-arounds to circumvent their ongoing behavior issues. But what if you’re the boss, the executive director, the team leader? Then solving these issues is your responsibility. Why? Because ultimately if you have two members of the Education and Engagement team who can barely sit at a table together or one exhibition designer whose time management skills are so poor that it puts everyone else on edge, it’s disruptive. Hugely disruptive. And costly. And no one else wants to be at the table with them either.
So what do you do?
- First, know what you don’t know: Who is the problem and how? How is your team, staff or program suffering? And most importantly, how and when has it impacted work? Has the individual in question suffered a life event that may be causing problem behavior? Can you offer time off or find them counseling? Will that help? And understand, in some cases, it won’t.
- Have any legal lines been crossed? In other words, is the uncomfortable, disruptive behavior the result of harassment, workplace bullying or racist or gender-based stereotyping? If your museum has an HR department you may want to have a conversation about how to protect your employees, but also to make sure your actions don’t make a bad situation worse. Know your state and federal law regarding workplace harassment. You can’t force an employee to report harassment or bullying, but you can suggest it, and you and the victim should document what you’ve seen and/or experienced.
- Assuming no laws were broken, talk to the staff member(s) in question. And for the love of God, do not suggest they need to fix it themselves. Too often people are unaware how they present to others, and they may be genuinely surprised. So provide concrete workplace examples demonstrating where things went off track.
- Listen. Paraphrase, summarize, and reframe what you’ve heard.
- Be clear in your expectations. If you have an HR department, work with them to determine how to tie your expectations and needs to consequences. If you’re dealing with someone with terrible time management issues, and they’ve asked to work from home a day a week, weigh that ask against their work load. Can they meet deadlines? What will happen if they don’t? Do you have time to monitor them to make sure deadlines and check points are met?
- Don’t say you expect X,Y, and Z, and then neglect to check in.
- Document everything you do. Should you have to fire someone, your life will be its own special hell if you can’t document what you say has happened.
- Remember you are not a counselor, psychologist or mediator, and most people don’t change. That said, most of us would rather be happy than sad, and most enjoy feeling valued. A job well done, whether a short term project, or a years-long exhibit planning effort deserves the best team you can muster.
- Understand, the reason you’re involved is because this person’s behavior affects the whole workplace. Support other team members. Let them know they’re valued. Try to help them collaborate without being caught up in whatever baddy-baddness is going on. Be the person who doesn’t indulge in gossip.
- Don’t forget about your own work. You’re still a leader with a million things requiring your attention. Don’t get so deep in the HR weeds you forget about leading.