Can Museum Women Have It All?

working mother

Anne and I are still at work on our manuscript for our book Women+Museums and we are overdue for a post on the world of museum women. This week I’m finishing a chapter tentatively titled “Married, Single, Parent: Museum Women and Family Issues.”  Informally, we’ve referred to it as the “mommy chapter” because it deals with the complex, multi-layered issues of combining parenting and work.

As I interviewed various young women for this section of the book, I was reminded of my own journey as a working parent and as the French say plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Two memories stick out: one of interviewing for a job, which I didn’t get (Anne did) when I was at least 10.5 months pregnant with my second child. I remember almost nothing of the interview itself except being enormously grateful that not one person asked me anything remotely inappropriate related to the baby bump which was impossible to ignore. They treated me as a professional who aspired to do a job. I’ve never forgotten it.

The second memory takes place some months after the birth of that child. She was safely ensconced in day care and I found myself lobbying with my then executive director in the legislative office building (LOB) in Albany. Without over-sharing, let’s just say that the LOB wasn’t a friendly place for a nursing mother. Any of you who have come back to work while your child was an infant will understand this and sympathize with the misery of expressing milk in a public washroom, even a marble-sided stall in the LOB.

These memories were prompted by some of the stories from our interviewees all of which describe in exquisite detail the idea of competition and care which every working parent–male or female–must cope with. After all, you’ve invested the equivalent of a small mortgage in graduate school and want to move up the ladder. And yet you have a small person or persons who tug at your heart strings when you’re not there.

While I look back on my own experience with a degree of wistful humor, I realized in listening to today’s generation that opportunity isn’t everything. Going to graduate school, delaying marriage and children, getting started in a museum career are all things we hold out as shimmering opportunities to the women of the Millennial and Generation Y cohorts. And when we tell them humorous stories about needing to nurse in the middle of lobbying the state legislature, what’s unspoken is “I did it and so can you.” Really?

Shouldn’t we counsel young women (and men) entering this field who expect or want to have families that this is a low-paying field particularly for women; that childcare costs a bundle; and that a supportive well-paid partner will make child bearing and child raising easier. Earning $20 an hour while paying upwards of $200 a week for childcare should make anyone question whether work is worth it. More than a few of the women we’ve spoken to have remarked that during the period between birth and full-day school they aren’t earning money, they are simply marking time. And they are unanimous that the Family Leave Medical Act as important as it is, is not paid maternity or paternity leave. They are also united that flex time is key for working parents.

If you are a museum leader or member of a board personnel committee what does this mean? Is it time to revisit your personnel policy? If most of your staff–male and female–is in the child-bearing years are there changes you could make to maternity/paternity leaves, paid childcare, flex time or increased personal time off, that send two messages: one of understanding and a second that while we can’t offer the salary perhaps you deserve, we can offer X, Y, or Z. And since I can feel the hackles of the childless going up, for goodness sakes, if you offer flex time, make it equitable and make staff accountable. You are not “working from home” if you are checking email while walking a screaming baby around the room. As a leader, unpack what working from home looks like for your organization and make it available to everyone in combination with personal time off. And if you are a job applicant, a museum studies graduate student or a newly partnered or pregnant person, read your personnel policy. Understand what it says and what it will mean to you in your particular circumstance.

I am part of a generation built around a feminist ideal that we would work and we’d do it just like men. And somehow we sort of did. Some of us had patient, supportive partners; some of us had higher earning partners or partners with more adaptive schedules and excellent healthcare, and some of us chose to remain single. And we managed. I believe those of you who will stand on our shoulders can have that too, but you should approach all these choices with as much knowledge about the road ahead as possible. This is one instance where knowledge is power.

As always let us know your thoughts. Your comments keep us thinking. And if you are a working museum parent (male or female) with a story to tell, contact us. Conversely, if you are a childless museum staffer, we’d like to hear your thoughts too.

Joan H. Baldwin