Leadership, in museums and non-profits, isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. And for me, as an observer, a writer, and a commentator these last few years have been a zip-line of learning, yanking me out of my white, straight world, and forcing me to do more than tell myself I’m a good person and not racist. There were some rough moments, particularly when, while writing Women in the Museum, I struggled to understand intersectionality. And that’s not to say I’m perfect, but I’m aware.
This week I read a piece by the wonderful Vu Le, who writes the blog Nonprofit AF. (Hint: If you don’t follow Vu, you should.) In it, he describes what he calls “funder fragility.” Essentially, it’s the reaction of largely white foundation funders when non-profits of color point out that 90-percent of grants go to mostly white organizations. Leaving aside the financial inequities of this situation, here’s what’s odd. According to Vu, when this is pointed out to foundation staff, their reaction is personal, defensive and sometimes a bit weepy. The conversation sidebars while white, privileged staff assure their grantees that they are not the problem. Here’s Vu’s summation: “A group that has privilege and power is criticized, and a member of that group becomes hurt and defensive instead of reflecting on and trying to see systemic challenges and their role in it. Often times, the conversation is derailed and enormous time and energy are spent to reaffirm the offended/defensive individual and make them feel better.”
This struck a chord for me, not on the funding side, although I’ve no doubt it’s true, but on the human behavior side. What is it about human nature that prevents us from separating ourselves from what’s actually going on? This is not dissimilar to what happens when an individual shares that a family member is gravely ill only to end up comforting one or more people in the group about their own troubles.
Personally, one of my biggest struggles in my intersectionality learning curve was recognizing that even though remarks about things I’d written felt personal, they weren’t, and I needed to see it that way. The individuals who were gracious enough to talk to me about intersectionality didn’t know me from Eve. They don’t know how or where I was raised, where I went to church, whose 9th grade class campaign I worked on or who I dated. They only know the words I used. And in the moment, I’m the only person responsible for those words. If they are wrong, then I’m wrong, and I need to stop and listen. My response shouldn’t be resistance and prevarication, but a request for help: Help me understand.
As we’ve said about a gazillion times on these pages, words matter. Racist, sexist, misogynist speech is rarely one-off, White Supremacist-vitriol that’s immediately actionable. More often it’s experienced as the belittlement of a thousand remarks. As leaders, whether executive directors, curators, team leaders or board members, we are responsible for those words. There is no age, place of power or privilege where we get a free pass to be offensive, even unintentionally. So….
- Be purposeful in your communication. Make a habit of scrolling sentences in your head or on paper before speaking. Be conscious of how, even when you don’t mean to, words privilege one group over another.
- Recognize that silence also communicates. If you hear something that’s offensive, stand up for your staff and your colleagues. Not speaking up normalizes a destructive narrative.
- Your life isn’t the Hallmark channel and nobody will change in 45 minutes. Challenging a narrative is a reminder that needs to happen repeatedly before behavior changes.
- Learn to listen. Ask for help. Grow your understanding of the people you work for and with.
- Use your position. As Franklin Vagnone says: “It’s important to utilize privilege in ways that expand equity.”
- And if you’re a person of color, queer, transgender, listen back. Understand that for a tiny second someone who frequently has all the power and privilege needs your help, and is asking for some support and context, however awkwardly. Be kind if you can.
This is Black History Month. Next month is Women’s History Month. Maybe in addition to the proverbial Instagram posts about the achievements of women of color, for example, you could make an institutional commitment to eliminating bias from hiring, HR policies, exhibit text, and your Web presence. There are a lot of words out there. Perfection is difficult, but a statement about how your institution feels about bias says volumes.
All good stories have a truth that makes them resonate beyond the moment. Two weekends ago, Serena Williams lost the semi-final match at the U.S. Open. While that alone might have been news, what clogged social media was the fact that Chair Umpire Carlos Ramos warned her after her coach allegedly gestured to her from the side lines. She responded angrily and was subsequently docked a point after smashing her racket. The exchange continued when she called Ramos a thief and a liar, and was further punished. Later, Williams suggested that similar behavior by male tennis players is overlooked. Lost in the narrative was Williams calming of a sometimes angry crowd, and gracious support for her opponent, Naomi Osaka.
Whether you follow the arcane and sometimes hierarchical rules of professional tennis is not the point. What we should focus on here, and what resonated for many women is the fact that public expression of anger is strongly governed by gender rules. To put it more bluntly, it’s easier for men to get angry at work than for women, and make no mistake, Serena Williams was at work. Study after study shows us that when men get angry they are perceived as more believable, more authentic, and sometimes more powerful. In one study conducted by Harvard’s Women and Public Policy Program, male job applicants who expressed anger were more likely to be hired than women. Women, on the other hand, are termed emotional, overheated, and abrasive. Their expression of anger, which runs counter to gender expectations, decreases a woman’s status, power, and competence.
What’s most interesting about men, women and anger is that men’s anger is perceived as a response, as in “You made me so mad,” as opposed to women’s anger which is understood as internal, as in, “You’ve really got a short fuse.” If you are a woman or identify as one, and work in the museum world, have you ever been chastised for being too emotional? Have you been told to smile? To calm down? To not be so upset? Or perhaps someone suggested you take a moment while you get yourself together?
It took generations for this gender divide over anger to grow, and it’s not going to go away this year. That means if you’re a woman or identify as one, you need ways to navigate the moments when you are angry. Some tips:
- Know what your triggers are. Maybe one of your direct reports drives you crazy, can’t answer questions, is dreamy, remote, and disconnected. Not a bad person, but on a bad day, she sends you right over the edge. Understanding that ahead of time, means you can reschedule a meeting with her if the entire rest of your day has gone south.
- Don’t go in hot. Also known as take a breather. Give yourself some space. Whether it’s a passive-aggressive email, a hurtful comment, ongoing eye-rolling, or being shut-out of a conversation again, give yourself some space. Take a walk. Get a coffee. Breathe. You don’t have to let go of your anger, you have to understand it.
- Think ahead about what you want to say vs. what you need to say. Don’t rant about the fact that the gala is in 36 hours and how suddenly you’ve been asked to revise a foundation request that was badly done (by someone else) in the first place. Try to focus on your organization and what’s best for it–how to get both things completed in a short time–rather than your hurt and betrayal at being asked to shore up a colleague’s failures yet again. By not focusing on your anger, you’re more likely to get help, and to create a climate where colleagues may be alert to the situation happening again.
- Support your colleagues: One of the other things studies show us is that while men’s anger and women’s anger are treated differently in the workplace, we also learn that many times both men AND women scorn women who are angry. Again, especially if you are a museum leader, look for the reason the woman is angry rather than the fact that she’s expressed it. Find out what is going on.
- Grow some empathy. Imagine that you’re a woman who’s been hired at a lower rate than her male colleague and knows it. Imagine that you’re a woman who’s been left out of conversations and information by male colleagues who subsequently use your knowledge gap to punish you. Imagine you’re a woman whose ideas are constantly reformulated at the staff table by a male colleague as his own. Imagine you hear inappropriate jokes at lunch objectifying women. Imagine all of that. Now imagine you’re a woman of color at work in a museum. Do we need to ask why you (or Serena Williams) might be angry?
Remember what writer Soraya Chemaly said this week in the Guardian,
“It is vital that we don’t have one-size-fits-all feminism,” she says. “It will fail and exacerbate problems. People were surprised by the percentage of college-educated white women who voted for Trump. But a white woman grappling with gender inequality might be angry, and she can leverage racial privilege to compensate for her losses. Women have always been levers of white supremacy in US culture. That does not mean that they do not themselves suffer from oppression. White women understanding how their fragility is used to enforce racism is an important lesson, which is a hard one to talk about.”
How do you manage anger in the museum workplace?
The museum workplace is full of feelings: Success–you got the grant; terror–the second floor bath really leaked and your insurance deductible is that high; delight–a child told you this was the best school trip ever; accomplishment–you might actually finish cataloging that collection; anticipation–the fall benefit is tomorrow. All these feelings and emotions connect to work, but you’re not a product of artificial intelligence. You arrive every day with your own jumble of emotions, and it’s the moment where these two paths cross that we need to think about.
You’ve heard that oft-mentioned workplace trope, “We’re like a family.” Maybe. Strong families are committed. They communicate well and regularly. They are resilient. They share values and belief systems. They like spending time together, and they are affectionate. Those are all good things, although not all are workplace appropriate. In addition, not everyone working in your museum or heritage organization comes from a healthy family. Some arrive with a host of baggage. Advertising the workplace as a family sets it up as a place that fills a host of unmet needs. Work quickly becomes a spot where individuals feel comfortable discussing their failed relationships, their children’s problems or less dramatically, a venue where they let go of the frustrations of modern life. And while some colleagues share too much, others don’t share at all, yet their silence says everything. They can’t focus, are absent or on the phone frequently. When the over-arching culture says “We’re family,” it’s hard for museum colleagues (and leaders) to separate the hum of personal drama from the day-to-day at work or to know what level of help or participation is appropriate.
Once, a boss I didn’t much care for, an individual who met alcoholism head-on so he knew a bit about controlling feelings, told me that the hardest thing about work is exercising restraint. At the time, I brushed it off, but it’s stayed forever embedded on my personal hard drive, a home truth about saying less. That’s true both as a leader and a follower. It’s a reminder to all of us to create a museum culture for the public AND for staff that is warm, embracing and empathetic, but at the same time clear that our first priority is the communities we serve and the objects, living things and buildings we care for. In other words, work is about work.
Not being like a family doesn’t mean museum leaders can’t or shouldn’t address staff’s problems when they interfere with work. But here’s a caveat: Do your homework first. If you have an HR department, consult them. Know what you can and cannot say, and what you can and cannot offer, and whether HR needs to be in the room when you speak to your employee. Too often people suffer through massive personal drama because they’re ashamed of what’s happening to them. If you don’t have an HR department, use resources in your community — perhaps through your Chamber of Commerce — to get the advice and counsel you need. Make sure you’ve documented the employee’s behavior so you’re not offering vague descriptions that only add to the misery. If inattention costs your organization something, be prepared to explain. Work toward:
- Creating a climate where staff aren’t afraid to say they need to press pause.
- In the event of a personal tragedy, make sure staff know who to talk to.
- Remember that accident, illness or broken relationships can happen to anyone. Don’t blame an employee for circumstances beyond her control.
- Separate legitimate tragedy from a staff member who uses the museum to shed emotional load.
- Work with HR and your board personnel committee to understand what alternatives you might offer–sick leave, FMLA, short-term disability–and know what those mean.
- Build a museum workplace that is warm and empathetic, yet focused on work.