Museum Women: Why Are We Tolerating This?

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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.

Joan Baldwin

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The Harassment Conversation You Need to Have

harassment statisticsSource: NBC News Poll, October 23-26

In the post-Weinstein Tsunami that is the American workplace, there’s a lot of guilt going around. There are also a lot of nervous folks. They are the people who say “I bet I can’t say that anymore” or “I’m glad I’m not on her team. She’ll get me fired.” And then there’s another kind of backlash: The humans lying in wait for those they see as not their friends to slip up, to put an arm around them, give them a full frontal hug or tell them they look pretty.  Then they pounce.

If you’re a museum leader and you haven’t had a post-Weinstein conversation with your staff, your department or your team, you should. Perhaps the first conversation should be with your board. They may look at you like you’ve lost your mind, particularly if you lead a small museum or heritage organization. Their faces may say–sexual harassment! Are you kidding me? The furnace is on it’s last legs. That’s what we need to think about. They may also say, “That wouldn’t happen here.” Why? Because they know their community? Because they are there to keep watch over the public, volunteers, interns and staff as they interact with each other?

Preparing your organization to deal with sexual harassment claims is a moment when belief and hope aren’t enough. Have the conversation. Frame it as a check-in. Make sure everyone on your board understands that just because you operate a museum or heritage organization, doesn’t mean you aren’t subject to Title VII. Nor does it mean a member of your staff can’t or won’t file a complaint with the EEOC. Make sure you and the Board have thought through what it might do when a complaint goes to the police. And last, and perhaps most importantly, your staff–even if it totals three or five–needs to know they matter, and letting them know the organization cares, empathizes and is there to protect them is one way to do that.

Hopefully, when your board leaves the room, it will understand its role. As we’ve said many times on these pages, this might be the moment to a) update your personnel policy or write one if you don’t have one, and b) create a values statement so everyone from part-time contractors to volunteers to board and staff know what the museum stands for and what it will and won’t tolerate. Hint: If you’re having trouble with this, outline several harassment scenarios and imagine how your organization would deal with the victim, accused and the PR.

The next conversation is with your staff. It might be led by you and your board president or the two of you plus your HR director if you have one. Make sure the expectations are clear, and most importantly, make sure staff understand what to do in the event of harassment. People who’ve been hurt, violated and humiliated aren’t interested in being hurt, violated and humiliated a second time during the reporting process. If your reporting system is too complex and Byzantine–don’t model yourself on the U.S. Congress–no one will come forward. Ultimately they will resign, but not before they’ve missed work and been justifiably unhappy. You don’t want this. You want and need a happy, productive staff.

So think of these conversations–first with the Board and then with the staff–as a form of insurance. You may believe you work in Happy Valley–and we hope you do–but in the event someone is harassing your 20-something intern and she’s too embarrassed to talk about it–do your due diligence. You’ll protect your museum, but most importantly you’ll stand up for something that hasn’t been right for decades. Museums have a long history as white, patriarchal institutions. That’s created world-renown collections and big endowments that generate great programs and exhibits. But isn’t it time for a cultural shift? Not just for your public and your community, but for the staff that works hard to feed your community’s soul? Museums and heritage organizations have been complicit in a system that oppresses women and particularly women of color for too long. We’re overdue for change. Be part of the change.

Joan Baldwin