It’s been a while since I’ve written about gender and the museum world, and as we enter week nine of the COVID-19 pandemic, here are a few things I’ve been thinking about:
First, if you think sexual harassment in the museum world is over, because everyone’s working from home or furloughed, it isn’t.
We’re undoubtedly looking towards a post-COVID future where job competition will be furious. Anxiety never brings out the best in people, and stringent budgets combined with a tight job market does not lend itself toward a humane workplace. Just last week Art News reported on sexism and racism allegations at the Akron Museum of Art. The article, which suggests the museum’s Executive Director Mark Masuoka and another senior administrator, Jennifer Shipman, were responsible for allowing an atmosphere of discrimination to flourish. And remember the news at the Erie Museum of Art when the board realized who it had hired? That was only four months ago. The good news is that in both cases it was the boards, not museum leadership, who seem to appreciate the dire consequences of a troubled workplace. For Akron, there are allegations that management used the pandemic to eliminate whistleblower employees who had previously complained about sexual harassment. People who are threatened will deflect any way they can, using the it’s–not–me–it’s–the–pandemic excuse. But workplaces that were humane before COVID-19 will remain humane. Those that weren’t are likely to be challenging places to work especially if you’re a woman. Side note: Without wading into the politics of Tara Reid’s complaint against presidential candidate Joe Biden, there is a lesson in her narrative for all women in today’s workplace. If you are sexually harassed at work or even if something unsettling happens to you, write it down. In pen, on paper, with dates for each and every incident, the old fashioned way. You may not be ready to talk, you may not have processed what’s happened to you, but get your thoughts down in the moment, and put them in a safe place.
Second, there is no doubt this pandemic hit women harder than men.
Economists quipped that the 2008 Recession was a Mancession because some 70-percent of job losses happened to men. This time, the COVID-19 pandemic hit women hard. In fact, women haven’t experienced a double-digit unemployment rate since the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) began reporting job loss by gender in the 1940s. April’s rates for women were 16.2-percent. We can’t say what the job loss is for museum women because curiously of all the folks reporting, from AAM to the regional service agencies, no one seems to be collecting data based on gender. What does that tell you?
We do know two things, however: First, much as we’d like to think the museum workplace is different from regular offices filled with cubicles and Steve Carell-like characters, it’s not. So if the national data tells us women working in the hospitality and recreation industries are the worst hit, it’s likely museum women are too. In addition, we know that 40-percent of households earning less than $40,000 experienced at least one job loss in March. The BLS tells us museum employees have a median salary of $48,000, so how do you think museum women fared? In addition, it’s women who shoulder the brunt of child or elder care, home schooling and many home chores. According to a recent survey by Syndio, 14-percent of women thought about quitting their jobs in the last two months simply to relieve the pressure of being teacher, day care coordinator, working person, and household manager.
Last, what did the pandemic teach us, and what could we possibly change as we try to ready museums and heritage organizations to open in a socially-distanced world with a vicious virus lurking in the background?
First, we know that pre-COVID-19, women made up 50.1-percent of all museum workers. We also know that in the museum world’s highly pink-collar employment, men and women cluster on gendered lines, with women filling education departments, while men are more often grouped in exhibit design, leadership, and plant operations. And we know the same problems that plague the national employment market, bedevil the museum world: There is a gender pay gap; health insurance–if it’s offered–is tied to employment; childcare is ridiculously expensive; many employees do not receive paid sick leave; and many women (and some men) would benefit by more flexible hours to accommodate family responsibilities.
So, as you restart your organizational engines, here are some things to remember about women returning to your workplace:
- Working from home doesn’t have to be confined to pandemics. Within your organizational culture, how can virtual work be structured so employees working from home still feel connected to your organization? How about flextime? Often women are responsible for getting a family–children or elders–ready to begin the day. Breakfasts, lunch to go, dressing and commuting to school, daycare or appointments take time. Would it help women (or primary parents) in your organization to begin and end the work day at times that support their schedule while still providing the organization with the agreed upon time?
- Women are paid less. You don’t have to believe me. Read AAUW and the Center for American Progress. Isn’t it time your organization did an equity pay audit, and raised women’s salaries?
- How many organizations let frontline staff go during the virus because within the organizational culture they have one skill set? Can you change your museum culture so that all hourly staff are cross trained? How would things look if hourly staff had a primary task, say, elementary school tours, coupled with a secondary task working elsewhere, not just in emergencies, but always?
- Daycare is frighteningly expensive. According to the Center for American Progress, the average cost of infant daycare in the United States averages $1,230/month, and for a preschool child, $800/month. What are the demographics of your staff? Are many of them parents? When you hear griping about salaries remember some of them may shoulder childcare costs equal to a mortgage. In an ideal world, large museums would have their own daycares. Failing that, would your museum consider a partnership with a local day care? Your education department provides an agreed upon amount of programming, and your staff get a discount.
- One thing the pandemic has taught us: viruses spread and sick people should stay home. Staff without paid time off are either forced to take unpaid leave or to come to work sick. Even before COVID-19, illnesses at work affect large numbers of staff. According to Kaiser Health News, “The lower likelihood of paid sick leave for part-time workers has a disproportionate impact on women, who are more likely than men to hold part-time jobs…… Nine in ten (91%) workers in financial activities have paid sick leave, compared to less than half of workers in leisure and hospitality (48%) and accommodation and food services (45%).” The Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires employers with less than 500 staff to provide two weeks paid leave for sick employees, and two-thirds regular pay for those caring for someone who’s sick. If you don’t already offer paid time off, is that something you can institute?
Environmentalist Bill McKibben says the dumbest thing we can do post-COVID is to set up the bowling pins in exactly the same way. How will you make change in your workforce, and how will it support 50.1-percent of your staff?
Stay well and stay safe,
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employed persons by detailed industry, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity. 2019. bls.gov/cps/cpsaat18.htm. Accessed May 18, 2020.
If I were Randy Rainbow I’d begin this post with a clever song about my ongoing crush on the Philbrook Museum. But I’m not. My singing is cringe worthy, although my crush is real. How can you not love an organization that writes about post-pandemic life like this? “The museum we closed will not be the museum we open.”
Yesterday I heard an NPR interview with a Boston doctor. He explained ER visits are down because many people will endure pain rather than expose themselves to the virus. He suggested ERs have to learn to do two things at once: Be familiar, caring places we’re not afraid to go for stitches or a broken limb, but also be the entry point for Coronavirus patients. It occurred to me that may also be true for museums. Museums need to do two things at once as well: the familiar in-person experience and a whole other multi-leveled virtual one.
More than 20 years ago the Internet dissolved library walls. Suddenly physical space didn’t matter. Walls were porous because information was everywhere, from the books you checked out, to whatever you found on the library’s computers and databases, to ultimately, your laptop and cell phone. As devices became increasingly sophisticated, so did librarians, not because they no longer believed in the power of books (they do, passionately), but because they knew we needed guides through the wild world of the digital universe. To an outsider, the library pivot felt pretty seamless, shifting from a place where access only happened in the traditional reading room to an all-enveloping library where the focus is on you and your access to information. How did museums miss that boat? Where were they when the shift to the digital universe happened?
Clearly, some folks got on board, which brings us back to the Philbrook. Under normal pre-COVID circumstances, a resident of Connecticut (me), would not likely know much about a museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But I discovered the Philbrook on Instagram several years ago where it already possessed a lively social media universe rooted in its site and collections. In a piece written for AAM, Philbrook President Scott Stulen describes the museum’s closing: “On March 13th, a cross-departmental group assembled. We had just cancelled the opening to our new exhibition that evening and met to actively respond to the expected (and unexpected) challenges ahead. This group quickly mobilized the entire staff, guided by the priorities to ensure the safety of staff and the public while stabilizing the museum financially. There was also a realization that our mission to connect the community to art and gardens was not on pause, it was just moving to new platforms.”
The Philbrook, along with many other museums and heritage organizations, understands museum collections have a power beyond the sanctity of space. It wants you to visit, but equally important, the Philbrook seems to want you to know them, virtually and actually, their values, their beliefs, even the museum cats. And they don’t see their virtual collections and exhibits as some sort of junior varsity version of themselves. Rachel Cohen wrote “What We Miss Without Museums” for last week’s New Yorker. Cohen talks about her life pre-children, visiting the Metropolitan weekly. She is a master of slow looking. Yet after she became a parent and regular museum visits were more difficult, she started to take pictures, creating her own virtual exhibits. She writes, “Every day, I use a few of my photos of artwork to write an entry for an online notebook. I’ve been keeping the notebook on and off for years, but now I do it urgently, sending messages in bottles to friends and strangers, trying to offer what I’ve stored, what I miss.”
I wonder two things about museums in the post-COVID universe: Will the ones who survive be the ones who saw themselves as more than repositories? And will the ones who survive successfully be those who recognize the collections’ energy to serve audiences in a multitude of ways, not because we’re in a pandemic, but because it’s the smart thing to do? And in doing it well, will they acknowledge museums too have no walls? Nothing can replace standing in front of your favorite painting, seeing a living creature or sharing space with an object of historic significance, but is it a binary choice? Is an actual visit the only choice? Or is there another that’s different, but equally important?
This week Wilkening Consulting posted an infographic about virtual museum content and the public. Among the things it points out is that most adults don’t look to museums as a virtual source. Can that change? Wilkening reports her respondents are still looking for hope, for escape, to understand the pandemic experience, and to make connections while maintaining social distance. Raise your hand if you don’t at least have something hopeful you can offer.
As states loosen pandemic restrictions, medical experts warn it may be a year or more before we return to something like our old lives. So as museum leaders and followers how will we ride out the next 12-18 months?
- In times of crisis it’s easy to fall into the trap of the hero/shero, but is any of us capable of having all the answers? Don’t we need one another? Be the leader who values interdependence.
- Work with your staff to build a collaborative model where your museum is more than the keeper of the rare and the special.
- Understand your organization’s DNA. Know your organization well enough to make gentle fun of it.
- Take care of your staff. They are your museum and they can help move it forward from the COVID-19 pause.
- Know your community. Ask it how you can help?
- Don’t stop connecting.
Recently Zélie Lewis wrote a piece for Mike Murawski’s blog, Art Museum Teaching, titled What Am I Supposed to Do Now? In it, Lewis wrote about how COVID-19 affected not only her personal life, but the last semester of her museum studies master’s program, and, most importantly, her future. From my place in a chapter far ahead, safely working from home, reading it was uncomfortable, but it made me think. Again and again, I went over what advice I would offer Lewis if she were one of my own students, faced with finishing graduate school at the very moment the museum field plunges into the toilet along with the economy.
So, to Zélie Lewis and museum studies graduate students everywhere, here goes: Some of what I offer is cold comfort, in part because we have so little control over a vast, ever-changing situation, but also because I’m not walking in your shoes. That said, my first thought is congratulations, and also thanks. Congratulations on joining the 8-percent of the United States’ population with master’s degrees. Thank you for wanting to join the museum field. And thank you for assuming the potential debt necessary to get the degree considered the field’s admission ticket. In normal circumstances, you’d undoubtedly have a bright future. And you may yet.
Don’t forget the hard work you’ve done, but remember to put it in context. Your degree is more than a quid pro quo, permitting you to apply for jobs you couldn’t before. It is, hopefully, a set of skills and ways of thinking. You planned on being a museum educator. You know how to use an object, a painting, a document as a lens for learning. Those skills are useful beyond the museum world. You also write clearly. That’s an accomplishment too few possess. As a museum educator you know the world isn’t siloed. Each object, each artwork, each Tweet, each Instagram holds connections you have the ability to parse. You are an educator and you teach experientially. You planned to do that in a museum, but you don’t have to. You’re probably armed with skills you haven’t even tried to use yet. Believe in them. Understand them. And don’t let anyone define who you are. Do that for yourself. Remember what James Baldwin wrote: “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.”
Life comes at us all fast, and despite what you read, only a few, lucky souls have a straight shot at the career they imagine. For most of us, and particularly for women, our work lives zig and zag. The job we thought was nirvana wasn’t. We fall in love; we break apart. We follow a partner somewhere and start again. Our parents fall ill and need us. We go back to school (again). We have a child. What’s different now is your pain isn’t only yours, it’s echoed everywhere. There are a thousand stories on the news every day to make you sadder and more disheartened then you already are. But if the worst that happens to you is a delay in your career trajectory, count yourself lucky.
Don’t hold too tight to your dream. Be open to change. Being agile and adaptable is a building block of leadership. If need be, consider this an in-between period, a coda between graduate school and your future life, a time when you change your definition of success. Make the best career choices you can. Utilize your skills. No matter what you end up doing in the post-COVID chapter, you’re still a person with a graduate degree.
Be patient. I know. Easy for me to say, but sometimes doors open and we need to step through even though it doesn’t seem appropriate at the time. It may be months or even decades before the pieces fit and you understand what was asked of you.
Even though you may find work perhaps outside of museums, try to stay engaged with the field. Who do you know? Who is your kitchen cabinet or your peer group? How often do you meet with them? Are they capable of giving you clear, unvarnished advice? Are they just enough ahead of you career-wise to have contacts you don’t have? Are they capable of helping you get a mentor if you don’t have one or need a new one? Just because the train is stuck in the station doesn’t mean you shouldn’t reach out for advice and support.
Adulthood, like leadership, isn’t a plateau we reach, it’s a place we grow into through the tough work of deliberation and reflection. And while you don’t have complete control–who does? We’re in a pandemic–you still have choices. So while I wish we could wave a magic wand and put the world back to the way it was six weeks ago, we can’t. We’re hunkered down in pause. It may take more than a year for museums to sort themselves out, and who knows what our field and our graduate programs will look like post-pandemic. In 2019, women made up 50.1-percent of the museum workforce. Post-COVID, that number will undoubtedly change because while women occupy half the jobs, they cluster in departments–like education–that have already been decimated by layoffs. One thing we can be sure of: The museum world we return to will be forever changed. So write down, not the courses you took, but the skills you learned. Think about the paths open to someone with your competencies. Think about how you will pay the bills. Put your support group together. Revise your resume. Be ready for whatever comes.
Last, and this is for your life decades from now: Remember the spring of 2020. Remember you were the COVID-generation. Remember, what it felt like, and don’t judge the generations coming after you. If and when you get the position you want, be kind. Reach back. Help those who follow you.
To Zélie Lewis and the classes of 2020 at museum studies programs, be safe, stay well and do good work. Even if it doesn’t feel like it, the field is counting on you.
Image: Jeppe Hein
By Andrea Crivello, Guest Blogger
There have been overwhelming and challenging day-to-day realities in my professional and personal life as I, like all of us, navigate the presence of COVID-19. As I also juggle being a soon-to-graduate graduate student, there is a ‘business as usual’ characteristic to my coursework that, to my surprise, is equal parts stress and stabilization in such an uncertain time. With the global pandemic attacking from all sides, I’ve observed that reactive is to management what proactive is to perseverance and leadership…and completing my degree with sanity intact.
There were two influencing factors that prompted me to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania: The first, its motto: Leges sine moribus vanae or, “Laws without morals are useless.” …I’ll let that be as it may. The second, its Non-Profit Leadership Program (NPL).
Maybe it’s a kudos to UPenn’s marketing team, for swapping “leadership” for “management,” but in all seriousness, I researched degree programs for three years before landing on one that aligned with my personal and professional values and career goals as an Associate Curator/aspiring ED in the museum field. The NPL program has all the makings of an MBA: courses in finance, law, statistics, entrepreneurship, marketing; but it also includes courses like social norms for social change, design thinking for social impact, ethics for social impact, and the difficult art of listening. **
There is a saturation of scholarly articles, thought pieces, and webinars that all aim to profile what good leadership looks like, and increasingly so in the museum sector. I had the good fortune to experience first hand what it is like embodying leadership characteristics at a non profit museum during the program’s Leadership Practicum. The Practicum is the culmination of rigorous study with intensive application before receiving the degree. More explicitly, the goal of the practicum is to engage in a professional learning process, while enhancing my understanding of how leadership happens in a social impact organization. The goal is to contribute to the practicum organization utilizing skills learned in the NPL program. This was an opportunity to witness leadership in action and benefit directly from individual mentoring and personal leadership development.
Weekly mentor meetings were to include definitions and requirements of leadership, guidance on management of an organization, in-depth status of organizational conversations, career planning and guidance, and conversations on the social impact landscape locally, nationally, and globally. After working with Anne Ackerson as my mentor while completing 500+ hours of practicum work over five months, I was asked to write a thought piece about the experience.
Here are the key takeaways:
The need and commitment by current museum leaders to support emerging professionals cannot be overstated. Not only are their institutions the direct beneficiaries of activating innovation and cultivation, but they help transform next generation leaders.
Exposure to Museums at Every Level Matters
Museum professionals only wear one hat (said no one ever). Yet as a museum professional functioning as a curator-volunteer manager-archivist-registrar-collections manager, it was an entirely different experience to engage in a new strategic plan for an organization, partake in development project planning efforts, have a voice in a COVID-19 related marketing campaign, and join horticulturists researching a cultural landscape report to inform future public use of museum grounds. I think, due to the busy and intensive nature of museum work, it is easy to become siloed in our positions. Participating in these comprehensive projects and experiences not only made me stronger in my personal work, but made me a stronger colleague through leadership’s “soft-skills”: understanding and empathy.
Agility and Resilience in Leadership at Every Level Matters…Perhaps More Than Management Itself
Given my background, exhibition development was a large component of my practicum, during which there were many changes and additions to the number of pieces in the show due to hesitations on the part of private donors. Despite the consistent addition of manual labor as a department of one, and circling back with fine art and insurance companies, the importance of quickly shifting gears and rising to the occasion of timely completion for public benefit was clear. Similarly, resilience came into play when the irony of having never-before-seen works newly accessible to the public, now inaccessible due to COVID-19 stay at home orders, resulted in a quick pivot to a virtual exhibition opening.
While this may not be new information or experiences, I hope it sparks more critical thought and dialogue that everyone can and should embody leadership right from where they are.
**No, I am not a paid advertiser for UPenn.
As COVID-19 moves across the country, every sector of the museum workforce feels the pandemic’s power from the still employed, but working from home, to the temporarily suspended, to the recently let go. Every day museums and historic sites announce closures and massive layoffs, leaving many to wonder how museums will recover. One sector not much has been written about is independent consultants. Not museum employees who consult sporadically, but the group who work independently across the field in collections, education, governance, art handling and more. They work from job to job, shouldering the full costs of benefits, building careers while offering services many museums and heritage organizations need, but can’t afford on a full-time basis.
Being a consultant means you need to take work when it’s offered because a month from now when your calendar opens up the offer may have evaporated. It means your rates need to account for your business expenses, Social Security benefits and health care. It means working from home, punctuated by travel is your normal. And it means your access to COVID-19 Paycheck Protection Program is delayed ’til April 10. Amidst the tidal wave of museum layoffs and closures, we checked in with a group of consultants to see how they’re doing. Here are their voices:
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
Museum leaders and unions are an oil and water combination. Unions and museum boards even more so. When the Guggenheim staff began its negotiations with the International Union of Operating Engineers in 2019 its director, Richard Armstrong, reportedly wrote, “I do not want to work with a third party who has very limited experience in the museum field, and whose membership is largely in the heating and air-conditioning and construction industries.” An unfortunate sentence, encapsulating snobbery, the wealth gap, and the rarified view from the museum bubble in just 32 words.
According to Bloomberg Law, there were 40 museums with union staff in 2019. Many union members work at urban organizations where a ridiculously high cost of living and ridiculously low hourly wage create a perfect storm of dissatisfaction. If you combine the museum world’s insistence that the job sector’s ticket for admission is a costly master’s degree with the field’s emphasis on a more diverse workforce, it’s clear what a house of cards we’ve built. In the ongoing union/not-union debate we all owe Art +Museum Transparency thanks for saying the emperor has no clothes. They brought you the Arts + All Museums Salary Transparency 2019 spread sheet (that, BTW, sparked other nonprofit industries to follow suit and was prompted by Kimberly Drew’s talk 2019 AAM talk ), and can be counted on to use their social media platform to decry poor pay and poor treatment of museum workers.
If you’re a museum leader, what scares you about unions? Is it the thought of actually having to discuss hourly compensation with a union negotiator, someone who talks salaries and benefits for a living? Is there a secret part of you, like the Guggenheim’s Armstrong, who believes union reps can’t possibly understand museum culture? Are you afraid to stand up for frontline staff with your board? Or do you believe you don’t need to pay your frontline workers because somehow there will always be a ready supply of retiree volunteers and desperate interns, willing to move through your galleries being knowledgable for the price of a few volunteer events or a great recommendation?
If you lead a museum, and the thought of unionization makes you anxious, consider what it’s like to earn a master’s degree and make $15 an hour. Please do not say we all have to start somewhere. We do, but in some of America’s biggest cities, cost of living long ago outstripped minimum wage. And does your museum or heritage site have a gender — or a racial — wage gap? If yes, what have you done to help close it? Unionization isn’t Nirvana, but according to the AFL-CIO its women members have a smaller gap than non-members, and the union itself is campaigning for #Paycheck Fairness Act. We are still waiting for the Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for 2019, but last year the field was 49.5-percent women. Isn’t this the moment to take the pay equity seriously?
As a museum leader, how often do you meet with your hourly staff? And how transparent are you and your board about their wages and benefits? If you don’t want to bargain with a union, work toward creating a humane workplace with the understanding that an organizational culture predicated on secrecy around such corporate keystones as compensation ultimately affects wage growth and morale. Put together a compensation committee where exempt and non-exempt staff from across your museum or heritage organization meet with board members on a regular basis. Help everyone know what they don’t know. Help staff and board members understand what equity means, what your organization can afford, and what might happen elsewhere in the budget if the wage gap were fixed. And know by doing so, you’ll face hard conversations, as Susan Dominus writes in her New York Times article, “Breaking the Salary Sharing Taboo”:
Open discussions of pay lay bare some of the basic contradictions that govern so many workplaces, which claim to embrace their workers like family while insisting, all the while, on professionalism and discretion. They are communities whose members care about one another and yet also know that their respective right to belong is based on their utility, perceived or actual. To ask a co-worker her salary — especially one who has worked at an institution for years — opens up deeper, unsettling questions. How valued are you in this community? Are you more valued than I am, or beyond what I perceive as your worth? Or have you undervalued yourself, been timid, clueless, exploited?
Here’s a place to start: Employee Compensation: 2020 Best Practices for Nonprofits
Unions are appealing because staff want a voice, want to be taken seriously, and compensated fairly. How often do historians and pundits comb through the past and point to the seeds of what happens decades later, saying see, “It was already here.” Museums who arrive in the mid-21st century with an old hierarchical model, and a huge wage gap between director and public-facing staff, may find themselves sitting down with union reps more often than they’d like. Why? Because museum staff has found its voice.
How many times has this blog ended with a plea for clear, transparent communication?The answer is too many to count. If you want staff support, if you want to lead the best museum your town or city’s ever experienced, you need everybody’s buy-in. From the fanciest board member to the housekeeping staff, they serve your organization. Give them the opportunity to talk about why, and compensate them accordingly.
P.S. I recognize the 2020 conference season for museum people is well underway, and that barring disruption by COVID-19, hundreds of us will gather to meet and talk in the coming months. That said, isn’t it time we made 2021 the year of the museum worker because isn’t it time we spoke face-to-face about compensation, benefits, unions, workplace harassment, and the gender pay gap?
Image: The Globe and Mail
For the past seven weeks I’ve been involved in a search for a new program director. It’s a time sponge. It’s nerve wracking. Candidates you thought you adored drop out. And, colleagues and staff behave in ways that surprise you. So….almost two months in, here are my six takeaways:
- Hiring is about relationship building. Yes, the museum is building a team or filling a leadership position, but the moment you join the Zoom call and become a talking head the size of a postage stamp, everyone’s soft skills are on display. If you’re the applicant, your job isn’t to best your competition in some imaginary race, spewing a laundry list of achievements at your listeners. It’s to be your best self. Do you seem like someone who listens? Are you picking up on social queues? Your potential employer is on display too. If museum staff is interviewing as a group, how do they interact with one another? Are they the kind of team that seems irresistible or do they give off a fog of dysfunction?
- How the process is structured really matters. My employer has worked very, very hard in the last few years to build a better hiring process, one that’s multi-layered, many-voiced, and equitable. In the bad old days, hiring might be done by one individual from behind a desk. They opened letters and somehow deciphered who they wanted to speak to. There might or might not be a phone call, but many times it was simply to set up an in-person interview. There, one person represented the institution in all its glory, deciding whether you were a good fit. If you met other staff it was to say hello while you toured the site. Thankfully, those days are over. By acknowledging the gravity of the hiring process and working with HR, it’s possible to create a process that helps eliminate bias while incorporating a variety of voices.
- Keeping an open mind is really important. Whether we admit it or not, we all come to the process hampered with ideals, and those ideals intertwine with bias to create some optimal candidate who we consciously or unconsciously hold up for comparison. Sometimes it’s a detailed picture that includes graduate degrees, internships, conference presentations, and previous organizations worked. Sometimes it’s as simple as not male, not old. But if your ideal is more about you than it is about your museum, you’re in trouble. The choice to pick an older person of color versus a young white millennial isn’t about you. It’s for your organization. Your vote–hopefully among many–should not be for superficials, but for the person (and their values) whose leadership practice best benefits your museum or heritage organization.
- If your organization isn’t diverse, be transparent: If you’re inviting a “first” candidate–first woman, first person of color, first LGBTQ–to interview, and you know they’ll walk into a room where they feel othered, be open about it. Acknowledge your organization’s lack of diversity, and ask whether being part of that change is something the candidate wants to participate in.
- Group-think is important: One of the things I applaud about my organization’s rehabilitated hiring process is that opinions are expressed in private via a common form. Why does that matter? Well, our organization, and perhaps yours too, has some dominant voices. When a hiring committee makes decisions around a table, individual opinions sometimes don’t receive equal weight. Filling out a common form, and assigning numerical scores to aspects of the interview helps make the process more equitable for candidates and interviewers.
- Organizational self-knowledge is key: In a perfect world we’d all be self-aware, and, as a result, so would our museums and heritage organizations. If your job is to find a curator, an advancement professional, a designer or educator, you need to understand your organization fully. Too often hiring committees are thrilled when they discover common ground between themselves and the candidate, but what really matters is alignment between the candidate and the museum. Hiring committees benefit from talking about the organization and its values at the outset so they begin with a common understanding of their museum’s values.
To return to where I began, hiring is a stressful process for both employer and applicant, but your staff, as we’ve said multiple times here, is a huge investment. You want to get it right: to hire the best person you can, whose values align, while their creativity stimulates healthy change and growth.
Take a look at the way you hire, the process you go through, and make changes now. Despite the American Alliance of Museum’s longstanding resistance to requiring salary listings in job announcements, it has done a deep dive into equitable hiring, and the resources are formidable. Use them. As with so much in the museum workplace hiring is a process well worth the investment. Know yourself. Know your workplace and its values. Whether employer or applicant, we all want a process that’s equitable, that’s built on behavioral questions, and that aligns individual and museum values, not superficials.
How many of you are museum leaders? Are you lonely? If you’re nodding, you’re not the only one. By some estimates, 42-percent of for-profit leaders confess to feeling lonely all or part of the time. Leadership is isolating. You’re happy in your job; it’s challenging, but there are things that can’t be shared. Some days are stressful. You know things you can’t un-know, and the decisions you make often feel like they’re yours alone.
There are ways to make the top spot less isolating. You can allow yourself to be vulnerable with your leadership team. By learning to express feelings–as opposed to parsing problems–you model vulnerability and build trust. You can create a peer group or ‘kitchen cabinet’ that you meet with regularly to share frustrations, ideas, and to problem solve. You may also have close friends, unconnected with your museum, who listen well or a few well-placed mentors. Those outlets are yours and yours alone. And they don’t put you in the position of treating any of your staff or leadership team differently.
There are families, governments, and workplaces where power masquerades as friendship, love or connection. It is, to quote a Latin phrase we’ve all heard too much recently, a quid pro quo. Grandparents pay for college tuition, but only if they select the school. A town official looks the other way when a local non-profit needs a variance, but then asks the non-profit to support something else in exchange. A museum leader wants her staff to like her so she adjusts their schedules to accommodate their personal circumstances. These are all ways to create connection and make an individual feel liked. The only problem is they aren’t sustainable because they’re based not in authenticity and equity, but on transaction.
These days when we say the words workplace equity, what comes to mind is race, gender, access, and the way we treat one another in the museum workplace. But far from values statements and HR policies there’s day-to-day life where equity happens, and the ongoing question of who gets what. Who gets noticed? Who is hourly and who is salaried? Who gets to work on plum assignments? Who gets to travel on the museum’s dime? Who never met a deadline that wasn’t moveable? Who leaves early for soccer practice? Who is chronically late, but excused? Who is plucked from the group to meet with a trustees? Whose work is nominated for a prize? We could go on, but you get the picture.
Part of leadership’s isolation is leaders can’t have favorites. As a leader, you need to understand and tame your own biases, and you can’t use your power to grant favors for those you like. Creating an equitable workplace means….
- Starting with your employee handbook: Looking at the language. Might it affect one demographic differently than another? Can you fix it?
- Does your museum have a values statement? If so, how do you use it to guide daily practice? If not, why not?
- Do your rules about personal leave apply to everyone equitably? For example, are family leave — human leave — available equitably, because life comes at us all fast? And do you permit personal time that recognizes not all of us celebrate the same holidays at the same time? A small thing, but a nod that your organization embraces and supports difference.
- Are rules about promotion and professional development transparent?
- How are new ideas heard? How hard is it for an idea to make its way from the hourly staff to the salaried staff? If it’s challenging does that reinforce the idea that salaried staff are the idea makers? Where is the inequity in that?
Museum workplaces are microcosms of the wider world. As a leader you and your board have the opportunity to create and shape an organizational culture that is human-centered and fair. In many ways the workplace you create has a profound impact on the way your organization appears in the world. (If you need an example of what an organization looks like that neglects values and does not keep its staff safe, seen and supported, look no further than the Philadelphia Museum of Art, fast becoming the poster child for an unethical work environment.)
You can’t control each and every staff person’s behavior, but you can create a place where staff feel respected and nurtured. So build human-centered policies, and don’t let them languish. Apply them and watch your staff flourish.
Image: Museum of Happiness
It’s February. In the academic world, where I work, spring break looms in the distance like Oz. But before it arrives, there are annual performance reviews. Like much in life, performance reviews deliver more when you invest more. Sadly, though, in the imperfect world of the museum workplace the whole experience has all the appeal of a root canal. An overburdened leader with too little time on her hands needs to press pause long enough to meet with her staff or team individually, while cramming their jobs and personalities into a form designed in HR for one-size-fits-all. That’s the leader’s side. From the staff point of view, it may be a once-a-year conversation with a boss they don’t know very well that’s eerily reminiscent of their job interview, except there’s always the hint that the whole conversation is like a principal’s office visit, and whatever happens is GOING IN YOUR PERMANENT RECORD. The result is an experience, visited on us annually like a virus, potentially fraught with tension and the desire to have it over, where the highlight is often checking the box.
Apologies if that sounds hugely negative. Maybe you work in a museum or heritage site where annual performance reviews are one in a series of ongoing conversations with your director or team leader. Maybe they’re full of laughter, encouragement, and questions like, “What was your best moment at work this year?” Sadly, that has not been my experience. For seven years I had an increasingly toxic relationship with my then-leader. He failed to treat me equitably in a 36-month period of bullying by a colleague, leaving me at best cautious and at worst mistrusting. Over time, we whittled the required annual review down to the briefest exchange. It was totally pro-forma and completely unhelpful.
That said, I remain hopeful. I still believe performance reviews are opportunities not tests, and, like much in leadership, they should be intentional acts. But maybe you lead an organization that doesn’t have performance reviews. Maybe after decades of not meeting with staff on an annual basis you’re not sure what the fuss is about. You get along fine. And you may. It’s likely, though, even without the review’s structure and forms, you must make decisions regarding promotions, title changes, and pay. An annual performance review process, when done well, takes the sting of subjectivity and randomness out of the process by asking for employee participation.
Successful reviews start by touching base with mission and clarifying goals with your departments, teams or, in the case of a small organization, the whole staff. Measure team performance overall. Were their 2019 goals met? If not, why not? Once group reviews are complete, individual reviews make more sense. If you’re the overall leader, ask your leadership team about their departments. Who were the standouts? What does good, better, best look like on their teams?
From your leadership meetings, you can move on to individual reviews. You are neither a psychologist nor a wizard, so focus on the work. Ask them to describe a great day at your museum. Ask them if they could have a do-over, what experience comes to mind? Ask what they’d like to do more of? Less of? Ask how often they collaborate and with whom? Ask whether they feel safe, seen and supported, and if not, why not? Point the conversation back toward mission. How can their good work and great skills, continue to push the museum forward?
Ideally, were we not all overworked and struggling with too little time in the day, performance reviews wouldn’t be a one-time meeting akin to our annual physical. They would, instead, be a capstone to a series of ongoing conversations. I can feel the eye rolling here. Who has time for that? Likely you could, though, and if it improves communication, builds trust, and creates a better more transparent museum workplace, what’s not to like?
- Annual reviews are not productive if they are used to catalogue an employee’s failings. Start positive and move forward.
- Our memories are fallible and subjective. If you supervise a leadership team, ask them to keep a journal with a few key performance episodes for team members.
- Make sure each staff understand their connection to the overall museum operation and mission.
- Ask questions that get at the heart of what they’re doing. What works well? What doesn’t?
- Check your bias–both implicit or explicit–at the door. Imagine how you’d feel if you started your museum day cleaning the restrooms or dealing with toddlers from the local pre-school. Be respectful because your entire staff is important.
Performance reviews are something that seem to matter more in the for-profit world where achievement results in bonuses, raises and advancement. In the museum/heritage organization world, where jobs are tight and pay often abysmal, reviews sometimes feel as though they don’t have a larger purpose either for employee or employer. Yet we blather on about the importance of mentoring, of networking, of having a career plan, of speaking at conferences. And yet what are performance reviews but the 2.0 of mentoring? They are the opportunity to support staff, to point them in the direction of colleagues and opportunities, to invest in them. And, as we’ve said so many times in this space, your staff is the heart of your organization. Pay it forward. Hopefully, your gifts will come back tenfold.