Gender Equity: You Can Help Museums Be Leaders on the Equality Front

gender equity

In a summer that’s seen a White House Summit on the United States of Women, the first-ever nomination of a woman candidate for president by a major party, and the President penning an op-ed on his own feminism for a national magazine, isn’t it time the museum world got on the bus? Can you imagine if museums were the gold standard for gender equity in the non-profit world?

Wouldn’t it be remarkable if museums–that are on the cusp of becoming a pink collar profession or one dominated by women and beset by low-paying, undervalued jobs–reversed course and went out of their way to become leaders in gender equity? For over a century the heroines of this field, from Laura Bragg to the Hewitt sisters, to Susan Stitt, and more recently Elaine Heumann Gurian, Adrianne Russell and Monica Montgomery, have worked tirelessly for inclusivity. Each worked or works within her own time and culture, but the goal remains the same: Museums are for all, visitors and employees. Wouldn’t it be stunning if rather than being places where only those with entitled parents or partners choose to work, museums were an example to all non-profits for their policies about equal pay, paid sick leave, paid family leave and child care?

If you are a museum leader, board member, teacher in a graduate program or an employee, consider what you can do to further the field’s gender equity goals within your own organization. That may mean looking at everything from recruitment and hiring policies to work evaluation, to workplace tone, and mentoring.

As a result of our session, “What we talk about when we [don’t] talk about women in museums” at the 2016 American Alliance of Museums conference in Washington, DC in May, Anne Ackerson, Jessica Ferey, Marieke Van Damme, and I want to continue the conversation about gender equity in museums. If you’re interested too, we would like to hear from you.

If you missed our presentation, you can purchase the session recording here.  (Since a good chunk of the session was audience conversation and report out, the recording might leave you wondering what was happening for 30+ minutes!) But, you can access a free copy of our slides here.

Want to Join in the Equity Conversation?
At AAM, we also discussed the idea of bringing back some kind of women’s caucus–first launched by Susan Stitt in 1972– and we’re continuing to talk about this. One of our ideas is to create a Gender Equity Committee (GenComm) in the coming year. If you would like to help,  please fill out this short contact form and survey, and be sure to tell us what a group like GenComm, if initiated, could do for gender equity in the museum workplace.

Once we’ve heard from everyone, we’ll be back in touch with updates about the the way forward. In the meantime, feel free to email us with any questions, comments, or ideas!

Enjoy the last weeks of summer,

Joan Baldwin with Anne Ackerson, Jessica Ferey, and Marieke Van Damme

Museums and Work/Life Balance in a Digital World…plus a P.S. for Paris in Honor of Elaine Heumann Gurian

work life balance

As you know, Anne and I spent two days in Washington, D.C. at the Intercom meeting. One of the many conversations we participated in had to do with work/life balance. Actually, the conversation started out as a discussion of museum directors who believe long days are appropriate, and mutated into what leaders, department heads and directors expect from their staff in terms of time. One example offered was a museum leader who isn’t happy if her staff isn’t working at least a 12-hour day. Apparently she’s not a fan of staff who go home at what might be considered a “normal” hour.

We’ve heard this before, not constantly, but enough that it’s concerning. In fact, it came up in the discussion of family issues in this blog a few weeks ago, when women without children commented that being childless meant they were often the ones expected to stay late while people with children left to relieve the nanny or watch a soccer game no questions asked.

My question is why? Is there really a need for anyone, regardless of their family situtation, to stay four hours longer than the normal workday on a regular basis? And, when you combine a long work day with the fact that many employers expect exempt staff to respond to emails regardless of the time of day, then the idea of work/life balance becomes a bit ridiculous. Can you ever give yourself permission to shut work off? Do you?

Are you a leader who discusses how frequently you want staff to respond to email? Within an hour? In minutes? Within a week? And more importantly, what written or verbal expectations do you have regarding email and exempt staff? Are there unspoken expectations that even if they’re told not to respond to emails after business hours, those who do are the favored few, while those who don’t, aren’t?

To complicate matters, the digitization of everything blurs all the lines between work and private life. After all, you can sit in a staff meeting and read a text from your child as easily as one from a colleague. And while it’s great to hear that your daughter passed her math test or your son doesn’t have Lyme disease, the burden is on everyone to make sure that despite the blurred lines, that work gets done. Last, it’s worth acknowledging that it’s likely our own attitudes are shaped by the culture of immediacy that comes with owning an iPhone. Everything is heightened not just the world of work.

Let us know how you and your staff manage the work/life balance thing–especially when it comes to digital communications.

Joan Baldwin

P.S. It’s hard to write or talk about anything this weekend without the horrific happenings in Paris intruding. I hope all of you who are museum leaders will channel your inner Elaine Heumann Gurian this week and think about how your museum, site, organization can connect and deal/cope/unpack what’s happened. Is it enough to acknowledge the terror in the world and offer up a quiet space? Are you using social media to reach your audience about Friday’s events? Last, are there stories in your collection or site that speak to issues of ambush, pain, and loss of control? I think Heumann Gurian would tell all of us that a sure way to be permanently sidelined is to not respond to the world’s events.

Happy Staffs Mean Happy Audiences


This week I was lucky enough to have a long phone conversation with Elaine Heumann Gurian. She describes herself as the Bernie Sanders of the museum world, meaning she’s been on the left of things for 45 years and never altered her course. If you’re not familiar with her work, you may want to visit her website.

Heumann Gurian is an advocate of the museum as the family dinner table–a place where we all have a seat, where all our voices are heard whether we’re sitting in the high chair, just home from college or the family’s eldest member. She doesn’t have much time for sites that speak as if they’re the oracle of all knowledge and then wonder why no one listens. Actually, that’s not true. She has a lot of time for them if they’re interested in experimenting and changing the way they do things.

Heumann Gurian’s contention that museums need to respect their audiences extends “backstage” to the world of museum personnel as well. She believes that if your staff is happy your audience will forgive you almost anything. Think about that. Think about the damage disgruntled, cranky staff can do. Ponder a leader’s responsibility to create an atmosphere of happiness. What goes into that equation? You’re not their shrink and you are not responsible for the fact that they had a bad break-up, their cat died or insurance failed to pay for their expensive periodontal work. You are responsible for creating an atmosphere of authenticity, transparency and creativity where staff can do the best work possible. And part of being transparent is acknowledging that family–in the largest sense–whether it’s a sick toddler, a partner who had out-patient surgery or an aging parent affects staff engagement. Creating an atmosphere where staff don’t feel judged about taking care and taking time reaps its own rewards.

Here at Leadership Matters we struggle–especially in the wake of our work on gender–with museums who are outwardly all about equity. Their press offices never issue pictures without the appropriate racial, ethnic and gender balance; their exhibits are carefully calibrated to reflect community. Yet backstage, life is often different. I’ll leave you with a quote from Heumann Gurian:

The reality is that most museum staffs don’t really believe in egalitarianism either.  One finds, in the endless meeting culture, that once a decision seems to be made in the meeting, staff corner each other in hallways (often directly after the meeting is adjourned) to relitigate the issue based on the power and persistence of the individuals involved in order to reach decisions, or overturn previously made ones.

Think about it, and work to make change happen.

Joan Baldwin

Image above:  Staff of the Eric Carle Museum gather in front of Carle’s murals in celebration of the artist’s birthday.

Intercom 2015: What We Heard; What We Talked About

Elaine Gurian

Anne and I returned Friday from a quick trip to Intercom 2015 in Washington, D.C. The three-day conference of global museum leaders, which began Wednesday evening, was Intercom’s first meeting in the United States. Unlike many conferences this one was small enough (140+ attendees from about 20 countries) to meet in museums around the city. Centered around three themes: The Essential MuseumThe Enduring Organization, and The Sustainable Leader, the conference drew a number of thoughtful folk and unleashed some deep conversations. Our panel, which included our colleague Marsha Semmel, was titled The Sustainable 21st-Century Leader. Marsha talked about VUCA leadership (here’s a good link for what VUCA is all about) and we gave a broad overview of some of the findings from our book. At some point in the future, we believe Intercom will post the conference PowerPoints if you are interested.

Below is a collection of random thoughts, comments, quotes and websites from our 36-hour trip.

  • Elaine Gurian opened the meeting (that’s her picture up at the top).  She cautioned her audience that while a portion of the museum-going public wants the same iconic museum it has always known, many institutions are expanding programs and collections access to include traditionally disenfranchised audiences–moving, as she put it, from formal temples to less formal gathering places.
  • Gurian reminded us that museums’ primary function is idealogical, and that by their very nature they often reinforce belonging or exclusion. For her, the essential museum of the future looks more like a drop-in service space and less like an occasional day-out museum. She said, “”All public institutions have a role in creating peaceful environments for strangers and thus bringing diverse audiences together.” And also asked, “Have you wondered about the diversity of the library and why libraries are more democratic than museums?”
  •  Gurian believes we need to change our basic mindset, understand each visitor’s questions, and create spaces that are in service to the visitor rather than the gallery. Her mantra: Institutions that are welcoming, porous, accepting.
  • From Laura Schiavo’s panel on Next, Not Best: Workshop on Sustainable Practices we heard from Tony Butler, executive director of the Derby Museums. What an alluring concept to engage community with museum-making and, in doing so, making meaning of the world.  We recommend you visit their website, which is equally alluring and fun.
  • Also part of that panel was Gretchen Jennings, creator of the blog The Empathetic Museum, who said that museums must undergo an inner transformation; and that museums must have a civic vision.
  • And from the Dirty Money session, Bob Janes’ quote via video, “that museums are sleepwalking into the future.”
  • Last, for everyone who thinks New York City is the apex of all things museum, think again. There is a lot going on in the nation’s capital.