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
Twelve days into the new decade, and so much has happened. Last Monday the museum world reacted to President’s Trump’s threatened bombing of Iranian cultural sites with responses from AAM, AASLH, AAMD, and even social media from the circumspect Metropolitan Museum of Art. That was the week’s beginning. By week’s end, The Times had published an article on Joshua Helmer, once employed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and now director of the Erie Art Museum. In a #MuseumMeToo moment, Helmer is accused by both current and past colleagues of sexual harassment.
I had planned to write about white people trying to do the right thing, but before we go there, I need to say something. The Joshua Helmer scandal not only generated a social media storm, but a Change.org petition demanding Helmer’s firing. Meanwhile, Friday, the Erie Art Museum released the following statement,”The Erie Art Museum Board of Directors takes seriously all allegations of misconduct. Prior to offering Mr. Helmer the position at the Erie Art Museum, the Board, with the help of an employment consultant, conducted due diligence including background checks. No issues were identified during our due diligence.”
The subtext here is a board who says it did its research. If the complaints about Helmer are true, then it sounds as though the board is shifting blame to its recruitment firm or the Philadelphia Museum of Art for failing to divulge what they knew. But here’s what’s really bothering me: In 48 hours the Helmer firing petition garnered over 2,000 signatures. GEMM–Gender Equity in Museums Movement–has its own page on Change.org, a pledge to stop sexual harassment in museum workplaces. In six weeks it has yet to amass 500 signatures.
Why is it so easy to sign the Helmer petition, but not the GEMM pledge? Does encouraging Helmer’s firing make you feel like you’re doing something? Does it take the onus off you, and put it where it seems to belong? For centuries powerful people have used authority to coerce sexual favors and harm the less powerful. Yet sexual harassment remains an ongoing problem in the museum workplace. Imagine, for a minute, if the GEMM pledge had been around when Helmer left the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Could employees who signed it remain silent as a purported harasser left for a new position? It’s each of us who makes change. Not “them,” whoever “they” are. And we make change by changing our behavior. Sign the GEMM pledge. Don’t wait. Do it today.
So what I really meant to write about is this: In my ongoing journey recognizing the limitations and boundaries of my own whiteness, sometimes I hear stories that speak to the way we as white humans think we’re doing the “right” thing, but it backfires majestically. Let’s imagine there’s a white development officer and a curator who’s a woman of color. The curator knows of an eminently successful young, black businessman who’s just sold his company for $30 million. She follows him on social media, knows he’s a collector, and has met him at a social event. She discusses this with the white advancement officer who’s aware of the businessman’s success. She asks the museum to approach him because her upcoming show will include several artists he collects. She’s hoping for additional underwriting for her exhibit and maybe an acquisition fund for artists of color. Instead, the development officer asks her to reach out first. In his world, it’s better if the businessman is approached by a) someone he sort-of knows, and b) by someone of color. He may also be scared–scared he’s not culturally astute enough–and he’ll say something wrong, and he doesn’t want to be wrong. The curator of color is angry because to her the optics look terrible. The collector isn’t a small business owner. He’s a gazillionaire who’s just sold to a multi-national corporation. Why shouldn’t he be treated like any other 1-percent entrepreneur?
What’s wrong here? Well, a lot, but definitely a failure to communicate. The white advancement officer is unable or unwilling to confess he feels ignorant, something he’d do in a heartbeat if the prospect were an international, and there were a language barrier. In addition, he’s comfortable letting the curator of color carry the burden of race. She, on the other hand, reads the situation from the black entrepreneur’s point of view and suspects he’ll be insulted if he isn’t treated like every other big giver the museum approaches.
So where does leadership come into all of this? Good leaders understand their own limitations and vulnerabilities. Humbling themselves in front of colleagues, admitting what they don’t know, and asking for help come naturally. When we’re all being our best selves–admittedly a daily struggle–we need to model great leader behavior: stop worrying about judgement, stop worrying about control, stop writing the script for others, and instead communicate and collaborate. What if the advancement officer admitted a gift from this young entrepreneur would be a first from a non-white donor, and he was scared of messing it up? What if he asked for the curator’s help and collaboration instead of turning the ask back to her? What if she felt she could say, I am not the spokesperson for my entire race? And further, what if, as a woman of color, she also didn’t need to worry about being characterized as brash and pushy?
There are a number of ways this story could have gone. I offer it only to point out how our narratives hem us in. Understanding our own parameters enough to know what we don’t know, and having the courage to be vulnerable are leadership practices we all need to develop.
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.
Nobody wants to be called biased, particularly in the workplace. These days bias conjures more than just partiality or favoritism, and points directly at “prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another.” It would be close to impossible to be a responsible museum leader and be biased. Prejudice and partiality aren’t in anybody’s top five leadership competencies. So if displaying bias isn’t a behavior anybody claims, why talk about it? Because we all own some. It is not reserved for our political or ideological enemies or people we don’t like.
There are two types of bias: implicit and explicit. Explicit bias bubbles through our consciousness when we feel threatened. It helps us explain the universe by pigeon-holing and stereotyping people and their behavior. We can name it because it’s there, part of who we are, how we’re imprinted as children, and the values we hold. Implicit bias, on the other hand, affects our unconscious self in ways we’re not aware of, making it sometimes much more lethal then its noisier, brash cousin. A biased statement is out there for the world to hear or read. A decision driven by implicit bias is hidden and often unexplained.
This week, Leadership Matters goes to Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania to deliver the keynote at the Federation of Pennsylvania Museums’ annual meeting. Our topic: Gender and Leadership. Before you eye-roll and think “Good Lord, haven’t we covered that?” just stop. Because there’s one place in every museum or heritage organization that is the nexus of gender, implicit bias, and leadership. What’s that, you ask? Your payroll. Unless and until you’ve completed an equity audit, and then adjusted wages for places where there are inequities, that’s the place where–to mix metaphors entirely–your chickens come home to roost. That’s the place where all the bad decision making, suspicion, anger, and dislike lives. It’s also where admiration, pity, gratitude, and hope reside, brought to you by implicit bias.
Imagine you do an equity audit at your museum: you may discover that two under-forty, full-time employees, one male and one female, have wildly divergent wages. For the sake of argument, let’s say she is a curator and a woman of color, and he is an education curator and a white man. In your organizational chart both are on the same level, both hired within months of each other, both with comparable experience. Both report to you and are part of the leadership team.
And let’s say you weren’t director when they were hired in 2011. Someone else did that. In addition, both have used your newly-revised personnel policy to take maternity/paternity leaves recently. What might you find? First, the man’s salary is $62,500; the woman’s $45,500. That’s better than the average African American woman who makes 61-percent of a white man’s salary, but it’s nothing to be proud of. Second, when you look at their salary history, he received a small bump within a year of his paternity leave. She took maternity leave at almost the same time–yes, that was a rough year– and when she returned, following annual personnel reviews, no bump. This too fits with a Harvard study where women pay a financial penalty for being parents, but men do not. In fact, men with children are considered more hirable than men without children. Women with children, on the other hand, are less likely to get hired, and less likely to be promoted. The same Harvard study shows women with children were considered less committed to their jobs then women without children.
Granted, this is an imaginary scenario, but it’s there to help you understand how unconscious bias takes root. One prejudicial decision regarding race, gender, parenthood, weight, LGBTQ, or disability lives forever in payroll, and unless there’s an equity adjustment, it will still be there decades later when the employee retires. Your job as a leader is to work with your board to examine and correct these problems. Otherwise what’s the point of your mission statement and all the other spin that comes off mission? What’s the point of “serving diverse audiences” if your own workforce is discriminated against?
What should you do?
- Read and understand the pay gap and its history.
- Don’t tell yourself you’re not racist and then allow the gender/race gap to persist in your workplace.
- Educate staff and board about why the pay gap is a problem and what needs to change at your institution.
- Do an equity audit. Evaluate your payroll. Look for the gaps. Make a plan for adjustment. Act on it.
- Look at your parental leave policy. (If you don’t have one, make one.) FMLA or the Family Medical Leave Act is not pay. It’s a place holder. Make sure staff isn’t penalized for parenting.
- Pat yourself on the back and celebrate with your board if you discover your pay scale is equitable.
It’s a rare individual who’s self-aware enough, who’s done enough soul searching, who realizes the ways in which she’s privileged, and the ways others are not, and who can shed enough load to come to workplace situations unbiased. But we can all try. Payroll is a place where we can change the museum workplace. Just do it.
Although I hate the idea of March being the only month when women are the lead topic, it is an opportunity, so here goes. First, I want to acknowledge the hard work of my colleagues at GEMM (the Gender Equity in Museums Movement) in publishing its second white paper, Museums as a Pink Collar Profession.
GEMM’s paper poses some complex questions about our field. Among other things, it asks whether our long struggle with poor pay has its roots in issues of deep-seated bias, in many cases, benevolent bias. And, it asks whether that bias produced today’s workforce. I suspect the answer is yes.
In 1973 when the Women’s Caucus organized for the first time at AAM’s Annual Meeting, most of its participants were white. Today, some might identify as LGBTQ, but not then. Being out at work wasn’t always safe in 1973. The Caucus’s goals were simple and to be honest not dissimilar from GEMM’s today—support museum women, see them in positions of leadership, close the pay gap, work for decent benefits including maternity leave.
Although I can’t peer into the Caucus’s heads at a distance of 45 years, I’m pretty sure they weren’t thinking about women of color when they made their pitch to AAM. It may be due to the abysmal numbers of women of color in the field in 1973. It may also be due to the world they lived in and the baggage they carried. But they opened the door. They created a platform where the rest of us–white women, women of color, the LGBTQ community, and those with disabilities–stand advocating for workplace equity.
But to return to the white paper: Today, after 46 years, the museum world’s workforce is almost equally balanced for gender. Hooray. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2018 women comprised 49.5-percent of museum workers . That’s the good news. The bad news is it’s still a very white profession. Overall, the BLS tells us, 10.5-percent of museum workers are black, and 13.8-percent Latinx, neither approaching the national averages of 13.4-percent and 18-percent respectively, particularly since too often people of color serve museums in positions where they have responsibility but not authority.
Pause for a minute, and think about how decades of poor pay affects museum workers. According to the BLS, in 2017 a museum worker’s median pay was $48,000/yr. That is significantly below the average American’s 2017 median income of $59,039. And it’s likely not the first time it’s happened since 1973. Are there consequences for decades of low pay? Yes. One result is the field’s long slow slide toward becoming a pink collar profession.
Another may be that engaged, smart, creative folks leave when they realize that after taxes, graduate school loans, rent, and childcare there isn’t much left. What does that mean for the workforce? Clearly it affects diversity: You need to be privileged, whether by birth, marriage or both to invest in graduate school and then accept salaries and benefits of less-than.
Poor pay puts a strain on workers. It also keeps people in the field too long. Many must continue working to make retirement more than an exercise in how not to finish life in poverty. Think I’m kidding? If you don’t make much, you don’t have much to put away. Then there is the gender pay gap. If the median salary for all museum workers in 2017 was $48K, then, accounting for the pay gap, for white women it was $36, 000. But the gender pay gap isn’t just about white women vs white men. It’s also about age, education, and most importantly race, so the gap for Black women is 39-percent, for Latinx women 47-percent.
There is plenty to say about the museum workplace that isn’t about gender. And there’s plenty to say about gender that’s true for women everywhere, not just museum land. The gender gap exists everywhere. Statistics show women value job flexibility more than men, perhaps because women are still the primary care givers, whether for children or elderly family members. As a result they often accept lower pay rates in exchange for increased flexibility at work. Has this struggle for enough time–time to have a child, time to raise a child, or time to care for a sick family member–artificially depressed wages? And given our money-conscious society, do the museum world’s low wages devalue our profession?
So what are we left with? We have a workplace perilously close to majority female overall, and already dominant female in many positions, and we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that occupations with more women pay less. We have a workplace created, benignly, benevolently in some cases, with a minefield of road blocks. The entrance ticket is a graduate degree. Once in the door, you discover a world where salaries are often confidential, with employees unaware that others in similar roles might receive far higher pay. You may suspect there’s a gender pay gap at your institution, but have no way to find out. You may uncover a world of staff offices and meeting rooms that are far more traditional, hierarchical, and patriarchal than you anticipated or could have imagined. You may find yourself sweetly, kindly, mansplained through staff meetings or told not to make a fuss if you experience bias because of your race or your gender or both.
Can the field change? We’d like to think so.
If you’re an individual:
- Be knowledgeable about museum salaries: Read Museums as a Pink Collar Profession. Know what it costs to live in your area, Use the AAM salary survey and know what others in your position make.
- Read your organization’s HR/personnel policy. Know what it means to you if you want to go back to school, become a parent, or need to care for an elderly relative.
- Know what to do if you’re harassed at work. Will you be supported?
- Stand up for your colleagues. #Enoughisenough
If you’re an organization:
- Do an equity salary audit. Look for inequities based on age, race, gender and power. Think about the relationship between the executive director’s salary and the lowest FT staff member. Solve these equity issues first. Raises are meaningless if they perpetuate the pay gap.
- Create a value statement about how your museum or heritage organization expects its employees to behave. Stand behind it.
- Review your HR/personnel policy. Does it reflect your whole staff or just some of them?
- Stand up for your staff. And if you’re the organization that pays equitable wages, say so. How different would that be in a job advertisement?
Let’s not wait another 11 months to talk about women’s issues in the museum workplace. They’re here, they’re now. Nowhere are they more obvious than the paycheck, which is tangible proof of bias and inequity. Let’s change that.
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.