Museum Leaders: The Words You Use

Words Matter

This week a colleague posted the following on social media: “Five words to use when describing what others would call a bitch: Formidable, assertive, dominant, powerful, decisive. I proudly claim all of those attributes. Screw the bitch one.” Since it’s Women’s History Month and also the time of year when many of you will either be doing performance reviews or participating in them, we thought we should focus on language, gender, and performance.

You may believe you’ve got this particular issue covered. You wore red on International Women’s day; your museum is all over Women’s History Month; you’ve gotten approval from your board to revise your organization’s personnel policies with an eye toward mitigating gender bias. And the vast majority of your staff–particularly in education and collections– is women. What more can you do?

The answer is plenty. While the list above is laudable, a lot of gender bias happens unconsciously which is why it deserves more work, particularly when it comes to language. Are you aware, for example, that in a 2014 study of tech industry performance reviews  women were far more likely to receive critical feedback then men–71-percent vs. 2-percent? Worse, the criticism was associated with perceived personality traits. In other words, even when men and women both received suggestions for improvement, and, after all, that’s in part what performance reviews are about, those for women were tied to perceived behavior. They included words like bitchy, bossy, brash, abrasive and aggressive. To the woman on the receiving end that translates to “improve your staff presentations and, by the way, stop being so (insert-your-adjective-here.)”

And let’s be clear: Women are not immune to unconscious bias so this isn’t a male leadership versus a female leadership thing. Women also tend to evaluate men on their potential rather than behavior, offering constructive criticism, while being supportive. Women’s evaluations, whether done by men or women, tend to be more focused on behavior causing the women being evaluated to prove themselves again and again. What this means is women are evaluated by the way they have done something while men are evaluated by their capacity to improve.

And bias isn’t something that only rears its head in relation to others. When I asked permission to use the opening quote, I discovered that its author, Ilene Frank, Chief Curator at the CT Historical Society, had actually used the word bitch about herself. She explained it this way: “I had a moment the other day where, after making a comment that needed to be made, I felt bad about the tone I used and the force with which the statement came out. No one criticized me for it, but I felt bad. I texted my girlfriend and wrote ‘I think I was just a bitch.” To which she, in her wisdom, responded, “How about assertive?'”

Here are some suggestions for combatting workplace bias throughout the performance review season:

If you’re a leader:

  • Review your staff assessments for the last several years. Make a list of the adjectives you use for men, versus women. Is there are difference?
  • If your staff is large, you may want to repeat the exercise breaking down assessments by age, race and LGBTQ. Remember, you’re not looking for Title IX violations; you need to identify your own way of “seeing.” Who is your tone gentler with? Who is it easier to be direct with? Why?
  • We’re going to assume all your employees receive annual performance reviews, and have access to them. If not, think about fixing that.
  • At the end of the day or the week,  as you reflect, refine, and prepare to try again, think about the language you use about yourself. There is a reason it’s called unconscious bias.

If you are a staff member:

  • Review your own assessments. Look for the places where you feel you were judged on personality, gender, race or age, rather than performance.
  • If there are adjectives that bothered you in a previous review, and still bother you, write them down. If those words are used again, feel free to smile sweetly and ask your director if she would like to choose another word or whether that is a word she would apply to–for example–an older, straight man?
  • If you report to more than one individual, you may want to ask about the possibility of a 360 review from your multiple direct reports. Studies show that more and varied feedback helps level the playing field.
  • At the end of the day or the week, as you reflect, refine and prepare to try again, think about the language you use about your self. There is a reason it’s called unconscious bias.

Tell us about bias at your museum, unconscious or not.

Joan Baldwin


Counterintuitive or Ways Museum Workers Can Resist Bias at Work

confirmation-bias

We haven’t written an equity piece in a while, and given that in a few weeks when the administration changes in Washington, D.C., gender equity may move from the back seat to the way, way back, we thought we’d take a final opportunity to remind readers that we all bring biases to the office. Even in museums where we are uber careful to engage and embrace our community at the front of the house, bias may be alive and well in the staff room. And if your hair is starting to smolder, bias isn’t a gender thing, meaning it’s not something men do to women. It’s something we all do, whether we mean to or not.

Think of bias as a lot of small suitcases that we carry around with us. As babies and toddlers, those bags are empty. Over time, experience, our parents, our extended family, our peer group fill those bags. Some are packed with deep-seated angry thoughts with no basis in fact, some with yearning for particular individuals who symbolize larger issues, some with our ability to deflect and hide from situations that upset us. Don’t believe me? Try serving on a jury. It’s an excellent place to see bias at work. Why do you think there are jury consultants? Because whether we admit it or not, we judge people and situations all the time.

But isn’t just going to work difficult enough some days? You betcha. We all wish we had privately endowed funds that would permit us to work or volunteer on our own schedule. And don’t museum workers have enough on their plates? There’s raising money, raising more money, strategic planning, board building, being there for community in contemporary and meaningful ways, connecting to community, being catalysts for imagination and inspiration. And behind the scenes, away from the public, there is strategic planning (again), working in teams, reaching across disciplines and departments, saying thank you, and being respectful of colleagues. And yet through it all those little bags of bias accompany us.

Are you aware that taller people make between 9-15 percent more than their shorter colleagues? That blond women make 7-percent more than their brunette or black-haired peers? That overweight employees make less than their slimmer co-workers? This is especially true for women where extra weight costs women workers between $9,000 and $19,000 annually. It’s doubtful anyone hiring for museum positions would admit to preferring tall blonds who could be extras in Viking movies, but that’s the thing about bias, it’s not necessarily something we control. That’s why it’s called unconscious bias.

As museum leaders, acknowledging workplace bias is the first step in making it less of a problem. So here’s a Leadership Matters to-do list to send bias packing in 2017:

  1. Know yourself. Do you prefer one employee over another? Instead, spend time with the person you prefer less. Make an effort to understand them and their point of view. Identify your own bias so you can keep things equitable.
  2. Remember that as a leader you model behavior for your staff, team, department. Bias toward an employee may lead to the entire group isolating that person.
  3. Research shows that white Americans associate positivity with white folks and negativity with black folks. That may not be what people say they believe, but it is the result when psychologists test for implicit bias. If you’re a white American, unpack those bags before you interview, hire, or do an annual performance review.
  4. A lot of people are biased against women in leadership positions. That is not code for men don’t like women leaders, that’s a sentence that means a lot of men and women are unconsciously more comfortable with a male leader. You may want to take AAUW’s Implicit Association Test to help you sort out your own feelings.
  5. Know that having a diverse team or staff doesn’t eliminate bias. That’s how your staff looks. How they behave is something else. Self-awareness, empathy and understanding are all necessary weapons against bias. Work at developing them.
  6. You may think you’re a great communicator, but find out if that’s true. Provide feedback so you know whether your staff, team, department has the safety and sense of belonging it needs.

Leadership Matters will be back next week with a Holiday Reading List to tide you over until 2017. In the meantime, be well, and tell us how you eliminate bias in your museum workplace.

Joan Baldwin