This week a colleague posted the following on social media: “Five words to use when describing what others would call a bitch: Formidable, assertive, dominant, powerful, decisive. I proudly claim all of those attributes. Screw the bitch one.” Since it’s Women’s History Month and also the time of year when many of you will either be doing performance reviews or participating in them, we thought we should focus on language, gender, and performance.
You may believe you’ve got this particular issue covered. You wore red on International Women’s day; your museum is all over Women’s History Month; you’ve gotten approval from your board to revise your organization’s personnel policies with an eye toward mitigating gender bias. And the vast majority of your staff–particularly in education and collections– is women. What more can you do?
The answer is plenty. While the list above is laudable, a lot of gender bias happens unconsciously which is why it deserves more work, particularly when it comes to language. Are you aware, for example, that in a 2014 study of tech industry performance reviews women were far more likely to receive critical feedback then men–71-percent vs. 2-percent? Worse, the criticism was associated with perceived personality traits. In other words, even when men and women both received suggestions for improvement, and, after all, that’s in part what performance reviews are about, those for women were tied to perceived behavior. They included words like bitchy, bossy, brash, abrasive and aggressive. To the woman on the receiving end that translates to “improve your staff presentations and, by the way, stop being so (insert-your-adjective-here.)”
And let’s be clear: Women are not immune to unconscious bias so this isn’t a male leadership versus a female leadership thing. Women also tend to evaluate men on their potential rather than behavior, offering constructive criticism, while being supportive. Women’s evaluations, whether done by men or women, tend to be more focused on behavior causing the women being evaluated to prove themselves again and again. What this means is women are evaluated by the way they have done something while men are evaluated by their capacity to improve.
And bias isn’t something that only rears its head in relation to others. When I asked permission to use the opening quote, I discovered that its author, Ilene Frank, Chief Curator at the CT Historical Society, had actually used the word bitch about herself. She explained it this way: “I had a moment the other day where, after making a comment that needed to be made, I felt bad about the tone I used and the force with which the statement came out. No one criticized me for it, but I felt bad. I texted my girlfriend and wrote ‘I think I was just a bitch.” To which she, in her wisdom, responded, “How about assertive?'”
Here are some suggestions for combatting workplace bias throughout the performance review season:
If you’re a leader:
- Review your staff assessments for the last several years. Make a list of the adjectives you use for men, versus women. Is there are difference?
- If your staff is large, you may want to repeat the exercise breaking down assessments by age, race and LGBTQ. Remember, you’re not looking for Title IX violations; you need to identify your own way of “seeing.” Who is your tone gentler with? Who is it easier to be direct with? Why?
- We’re going to assume all your employees receive annual performance reviews, and have access to them. If not, think about fixing that.
- At the end of the day or the week, as you reflect, refine, and prepare to try again, think about the language you use about yourself. There is a reason it’s called unconscious bias.
If you are a staff member:
- Review your own assessments. Look for the places where you feel you were judged on personality, gender, race or age, rather than performance.
- If there are adjectives that bothered you in a previous review, and still bother you, write them down. If those words are used again, feel free to smile sweetly and ask your director if she would like to choose another word or whether that is a word she would apply to–for example–an older, straight man?
- If you report to more than one individual, you may want to ask about the possibility of a 360 review from your multiple direct reports. Studies show that more and varied feedback helps level the playing field.
- At the end of the day or the week, as you reflect, refine and prepare to try again, think about the language you use about your self. There is a reason it’s called unconscious bias.
Tell us about bias at your museum, unconscious or not.
Some of you will read this post’s title and start laughing. Professional development funds are often the poor step children of organizational budgets, quickly whacked when finances are under siege. Yet in our ongoing quest to have museums and heritage organizations take their staff seriously–not just we can always depend on you to open the doors seriously, but you are the change agent(s) and we value that (seriously)–Leadership Matters believes in professional development.
Last week Fast Company did a piece on Gallup’s State of the American Workplace Report. Admittedly, this is all workplaces and museums are only a tiny minority, but guess what? Fifty-five percent of American workers aren’t in love with work. They don’t hate their jobs either, they’re just indifferent. Why, you ask? Workers cited their bosses as poor communicators, and not just about work stuff. They felt management failed to explain a job’s benefits, and one of the principle benefits listed was professional development. The article suggests that unlike other more intangible workplace qualities, lousy or inexplicable benefits make employees leave. And leaving costs organizations money.
As a museum leader, you and your board of trustees want a stable, happy staff firmly entrenched with the 45-percent of American workers not trolling job announcements for greener pastures or better benefits. That means being an organization that demonstrates care and concern about employee growth, for conservators, curators, museum educators, and everyone else on your staff. And why does that matter? First of all, because of what it says. A clear and equitable employee development program says: We value you. Whether you are the lone ranger director provided with enough funding to take a course or go to a regional or national meeting or a member of the development office sent to learn the latest donor program, it is an ongoing way of saying thank you, an explicit demonstration of trust, and staff actually care if leadership takes a genuine interest in their future.
Who should get professional development funds? Well, in a perfect world, just about everyone. Museum leaders get more because their positions demand more, and the board and everyone else expects them to think and act at the speed of light. But wouldn’t it be nice if even the non-exempt staff who meet, greet, and instruct had the opportunity to go to a regional or local meeting once a year, to take an online course or work with a group like Museum Hack? So if your organization’s professional development program is lame or doesn’t exist, here are five things to think about:
- Boards need to understand that when it comes to staff, the best of the best seek self-improvement. They tend to leave organizations who make professional growth difficult or impossible.
- Professional development program budgets need to be transparent and equitable, meaning all exempt staff receive X and all non-exempt staff receive Y. And a gentle reminder, it’s not helpful if the museum leader seems to have unlimited professional development funds, while other staff have to go through a request and approval for every ask.
- Don’t hide behind the “we don’t have time for that” excuse. You are not curing cancer. You are a museum. You are an idea factory. If you can’t afford to let a staff member leave for three to five days, then you have other issues.
- It is helpful if professional development experiences are hinged to something at work, otherwise it is easy for them to become out of body experiences with nothing to do with work. As a leader, when you agree to staff attending a meeting, program or online training, talk about how that experience will integrate into the workplace on the back end. Be mindful that “What I did on my trip to AASLH” can be mind numbing for staff left behind, so make sure these interactions are intentional, directed, and, to use a sports metaphor, move the ball up the field.
- Boards and museum leaders want staff who can adapt. Employees who engage in learning on an ongoing basis adapt more readily than those who don’t. What does an organization have to lose?
Tell us how your organization sustains professional development.
Anne Ackerson, Marieke Van Damme and I spoke at the New England Museum Association Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. Our title was Women|Museums: Lessons from the Workplace, and we were among the opening sessions of NEMA’s 2016 meeting in Mystic, CT. We expected to begin our program buoyed by a Clinton victory the night before. We counted on Clinton piercing the proverbial glass ceiling until sometime around midnight when clearly a different choice was underway, a fact confirmed when we woke much too early to the news of a pending Trump presidency.
When we began our program, the mood was somber, as if we’d all partied a bit too hard the night before, which, of course, we hadn’t. After introducing ourselves with a little story telling, we walked the group through five myths of gender in the museum world. Here they are:
Feminism is all about women being in power.
The contributions of women in museums are self-evident.
The salary disparity between male and female museum workers is a thing of the past.
There are so many women in the museum field now that gender equity will happen on its own.
It’s not about gender anymore; it’s about race, sexual orientation and class.
Then we asked the group to discuss two questions: If they could send a message to their colleagues, institutions, professional associations and graduate programs about gender in the museum workplace, what would it be? And, what is the one thing they are willing to do to make positive change toward gender equity? Each table had postcards for participants to write messages on. There’s a photograph of them at the top of the page, but they also showed up on Twitter, Facebook and various analog spots throughout the meeting.
When the groups reported out, their remarks clustered around some important topics. The hiring process came under discussion as women questioned why they don’t negotiate job offers, and whether that is something that can and should be taught. One respondent pointed out that if you are simply happy to be chosen, you lose all leverage to negotiate.
The road to a museum career also came under fire, particularly the idea that in too many instances students borrow to go to graduate school, and then find themselves working in unpaid internships as part of some additional rite of passage, all so they can earn, at best, a modest salary. One group’s solution: there should be a field-wide refusal to work for nothing. In addition, participants want women to leave graduate programs feeling confident about traditionally male areas of focus like finance. Can’t read a spread sheet from the business office? Grow your skill set.
Sexual harassment in the workplace was also discussed with participants asking where staff at small museums can go when they need help or advice, and what the board’s role is in seemingly condoning workplace sexism. A participant quipped that Boston area museums still have a Brahmin attitude, meaning you’ve been allowed to be part of the boys’ club, now deal with it. And there was also a shout out for not just doing what men do, but finding new solutions to achieve the same end.
And towards the end one woman reminded us all to “Put on our armor and fight like Amazons.” Which brings us to where we were before the election. This fall we created an advocacy group, Gender Equity in Museums Movement, or GEMM. As yet, we have no official affiliation, but we are beginning talks with AAM to see how GEMM can support its equity agenda. If you’re interested in knowing more about our call to action, please read and share our platform paper, A Call for Gender Equity in the Museum Workplace. If it speaks to you, join us via email, twitter or Facebook. Let’s make museums the poster child for women’s (and that’s all women, not just white women’s) equity. We’re not giving up and neither should you.
And if you were out of the country, living off the grid or you simply stopped reading post- election, you may want to look at:
Not everyone comes to the museum field eager for leadership. Sometimes we’re moved forward. Sometimes we realize we’re ready for it and we move ourselves forward, but all too often leadership is an unintentional consequence. Like when you become the education director and find out that you’re supervising a staff of 50 volunteers, but only until the organization hires a volunteer coordinator. In the next fiscal year. Suddenly you’re a boss of a lot of people some of whom are old enough to be your parents or your grandparents.
On the other hand, if you aspire to museum leadership, but aren’t there yet, you may have heard or read the phrase, “you can lead from anywhere in the room.” We used it more than a few times in Leadership Matters. And we believe it, but to the uninitiated, it may be hard to figure out how to look like a leader when you’re in row three at an all-staff meeting, and potentially the youngest or newest person in the organization. So here–in no particular order– are some strategies for figuring out leadership before you get the job.
- Learn how to say you’re sorry. All leaders make mistakes. And if you can’t humble yourself in front of your team, there won’t be much trust there. The next time you mess up, get out in front of the error quickly. Apologize to your boss and your colleagues and offer strategies, either personal or organizational, for moving forward.
- Separate the parts of your job over which you have authority from those where you’re the one responsible. In many museums there are the worker bees who take on more and more work. Why? Because they’re great time managers, they have a sense of duty, and their bosses know a good thing when they see it. But multiple responsibilities don’t add up to authority. They add up to a huge to-do list over which you have little control in the end. The result? You are angry or sad or possibly both. Make a list. Separate your job into areas over which you have real authority, and the areas where you’re responsible. Be strategic. At your next job review, advocate for increased authority.
- Enthusiasm isn’t everything. Be strategic when talking about your work. Let your director (or direct report) know why you like something. Hearing general enthusiasm for working with collections isn’t the same as hearing your enthusiasm about finally moving the Excel files to the new open-access collections management program.
- Don’t hang out with the office gossip. Every office has one and museum workplaces are offices. That person has defined power as knowing as much as she or he can about everyone. Back-stabbing and talking behind people’s back is not the path to leadership.
- Embrace change. Every office also has the person who can’t cope with change. They mournfully explain why new ideas won’t work, describing in painful detail how some variation of what’s just been proposed didn’t work 15 years ago. Or was it seven years ago? Don’t be that person. In fact, be the person who gently shuts them down and suggests experimenting.
- Support your colleagues. They don’t have to be your friends, and you never have to see them three sheets to the wind at the office holiday event, but you need one another to make stuff happen. That’s why you come to work. To make stuff happen. So don’t judge. Just assume everybody’s trying their best.
- Advocate for your program, project, exhibit or idea. If you don’t care about what you’re doing enough to talk about it, why should anyone else?
And let us know how you lead when you’re not the person with the title.
Many of us remember Donald Rumsfeld’s famous remark to American troops in 2004, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” It’s become a kind of trope for dealing with things as they are rather than as we’d like them to be. And unless you’re lucky enough to start a museum from the ground up, in the world of museum leadership it’s something all of us understand. From lazy boards to poorly-trained volunteers, to staff whose idea of great is your version of mediocre, leadership is rife with situations where directors, chief curators or department heads find themselves leading folks they might not have hired in the first place.
So what do you do? First, understand your role. Were you hired to be a change agent? Do you work for an organization that embraces change and is willing to raise the money for new staff and new salaries? If so, lucky you. If you weren’t make very sure you understand your role and your organization. Change isn’t easy, and when it comes to HR, you need wholehearted support from your board or director to persuade long-time employees that their jobs, work habits or responsibilities may change.
Second, get to know your staff. By that I don’t mean whether they raise chihuahuas, compete in triathlons or collect orchids. I mean get to know them at work. What the heck do they do? And how do they do it? For all you know they may have had spectacularly poor mentoring for the last however many years. Or the previous director’s understanding of that particular job was very different from your vision. So meet with them; shadow them.You may learn their concerns are similar to yours, but they’ve had no one to talk to, and neither the power nor the support to make change. Remember, no matter what you’ve been told about the leader you replaced, unless you worked for them too, you have no idea what it was like to be their employee. And here’s a little leadership truth: Being someone’s employee is very different than hearing that person talk about being a boss.
Last, before you review job performances or re-write job descriptions, make sure you provide staff with clear expectations and a safe, empowering environment in which to work. Don’t micro-manage. They will wonder why you’re getting the big bucks if you have time to wander in the weeds. Give them responsibility and let them run with it. Show them you trust them. Some will need more hand holding and check-ins, others not so much, but with clear expectations, it will be obvious when benchmarks aren’t met. Then and only then can you begin to winnow the staff you’ve got in order to create the staff you want. But this isn’t a recipe for letting staff go. Trust is a powerful engine. Call me a Pollyanna, but believing in staff members and gently pushing them to achieve is a good thing. Just make sure your equation is job understanding + clear objectives = benchmarks met. And don’t forget to say thank you.
What’s your strategy for moving your organization forward with what you consider a less than stellar staff?
As many of you know I am the curator at an independent school. Recently a colleague approached me to ask why there weren’t more paintings of women teachers and administrators in our hallways. While I think my colleague has a pure heart and means well, there are so many ways to answer a question like that. A deep breath might be in order. Banning puzzlement and frustration from your face is also a choice. I opted for an explanation that portraits don’t arrive at an institution without someone commissioning and paying for them, and in 2016–as opposed to 1916–we spend money to build our collection differently. But what I really wanted to say was school portraits are window dressing. What really matters is how organizationally we deal with gender. Which brings me to values.
You likely have your own set of beliefs and values. They may anchor your work and your personal life. But what about your organization? Whether you work (and lead) in an enormous urban museum or a small-town historical society, it’s important to know not just what you want to do and be–your organizational vision–what you do–the mission–but also what you stand for. Does your museum, historical society, cultural heritage organization, science center have a value statement? Do you know what it says?
Our colleague Linda Norris writes about museums and values in her blog The Uncatalogued Museum. As someone who thinks about how we translate and give meaning to inanimate objects, Norris is frequently focused on museums’ public face, but she is no less interested in how organizational values translate behind the scenes. Here she is writing about institutional integrity: Do you divvy up your jobs into a number of part-time positions so you don’t have to pay benefits? That’s a value judgment about your employees and their value. If you’re a director, do you hoard information from both your board and your staff? That embodies a value. Do you actively seek out collaborations and partnerships. That’s also a value in action. I think we tend to think about values as warm, fuzzy things, when in fact, all values are not positive ones–and it’s the not-so-positive ones we sweep under the carpet. If you want to read her whole post, click here: Walk the Walk, Not Just Talk the Talk.
So yes, like the importance of a strategic plan, a values statement is a guiding document. If you’re groaning about the thought of the conversations (and meetings) necessary to create such a document, re-read Linda’s comments above and think instead about how a values statement works. And before that, consider that just because your programs and exhibitions serve a diverse audience, that doesn’t mean your workplace values reflect your programmatic values.
Your institutional values statement provides shared guidelines for how staff should get along in your organization. And just like your strategic plan, which is nothing if it languishes in a Google folder, your values statement needs to live and breathe, and you, as the organizational leader, along with your board, need to demonstrate those values in action. First, however, you need to understand your own organizational culture. Unless you are the founder, you inherited a boatload of behaviors and ways of doing things that you need to tease apart before you can understand how the place works. For example, suppose you lead an organization that is very siloed. How do you know? Well, the IT department or the design department or collections seems to live in their own universe. They “work” for their department head, but don’t necessarily serve the institution as a whole. That’s an embedded value. If you want to change that, you’ll need to bring the department heads together and help them work as a single team.
If this sounds like leadership 101, it is, but the importance of the values statement is that it puts behavior–trustworthiness, creativity, kindness, equity, whatever you deem important–out there for all to see. An organization with an active values statement is not likely to tell two employees with an ongoing disagreement to work it out themselves. Instead, HR, the director or both is likely to work through what’s wrong based on the organizational values. So no, you cannot, nor should you try, to legislate every employee action, but if you discover that bad blood between staff members is the result of generational conflict, race, ethnicity or gender, you can point to your organizational value statement. Of course one assumes you embody (and act on) most of those values already.
If you’re interested in reading more about organizational culture, we recommend this article from Harvard Business Review What Is Organizational Culture and this one from Forbes about values: Two Ways to Ensure Your Corporate Culture and Values Align. Finally, if you’re not a fan of Nonprofit Quarterly’s Dr. Conflict, you may want to read this: Dissension and Tortured Alliances. Let us know how and if you use your values statement.
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