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
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.