This week we read two great posts, one in Alliance Labs titled “Leaving the Museum Field,” and one on Know Your Own Bone titled “Does Being a Nonprofit Impact Perceptions of Cultural Organizations?” If you missed them, read them. Soon. There is so much good writing out there, but these two pieces, which strangely echo one another, deserve your attention. Why? Because the museum field has a problem. And it needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.
Both posts examine issues affecting the museum workplace. The Alliance Lab’s article, written by four mid-career professionals, looks at attrition in the field. It’s based on a survey, with over 1,000 responses, conducted by the authors. The top three reasons their respondents gave for leaving the field include low pay, “other,” which included racism, poor or no benefits, and the inability to get or keep a job, and poor work/life balance. According to their survey the tipping point for leaving seems to occur sometime in a museum worker’s first decade or 16-25 years into a career. Among the former, the issue driving folks away seems to be pay, among the latter, it’s work/life balance. Apparently an investment of more than 25 years in the museum field means you’re here to stay.
Know Your Own Bone’s Colleen Dilenschneider asks us to think about how museums hide behind their non-profit status. She points out that visitors often don’t know or really care whether an organization has its 501C3 designation. People, she says, are sector agnostic. The museum world, however, is not. Here’s Dilenschneider making the point that museum missions get lost in proclamations of non-profitness:
Here’s how Disney does messaging: We are Walt Disney World. We create magical, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Buy a ticket.
Here’s how some museums do messaging: “We are a museum! We are a nonprofit organization. Buy a ticket.
We would add that all too often the myriad workplace issues described in the Alliance Labs article are the result of museums and heritage organizations who believe being a non-profit gives them a pass on paying equitable wages, having a personnel policy or dealing with staff who are victims of sexual harassment or racism. In short, while museums may use their non-profit status as a mask, offering up mushy or mediocre mission statements, we would also argue that it allows too many boards to behave toward museum workplaces in ways that are not tolerated on the for-profit side of things.
As you might imagine, Leadership Matters isn’t convinced that workplace attrition by the field’s best and brightest is its only problem. Here are our top four threats to the museum workplace:
- The field is over-credentialed. Surely you don’t need an advanced degree to become a museum intern or an assistant to an assistant? Does a bachelor’s degree teach you nothing? How hard can it be for the museum job sector to get off the graduate degree merry-go-round?
- Pay is too low and demands are high. We’ve probably written about this more than anyone else. We are adamant that museum boards and leadership need to invest in their staffs–in their salaries, benefits and professional development. Is it possible that by investing in the best staff it could, a museum might find capital expenses would come easier? And is it possible that there’s a high degree of workplace burnout because in too many workplaces staff aren’t led, they’re managed (and managed badly).
- Leadership is frequently mediocre. There’s been a lot of work on leadership lately across the field, but more is needed. While more and more new museum professionals seem to understand that leadership is an ingredient of a strong career whether you end up in the corner office or not, there are still too many boards whose understanding of the museums they lead is poor, resulting in weak decision making. And we’re not convinced that boards aren’t still trying to shift their fiduciary responsibilities to a museum’s top spot, making the ED the chief fundraiser not the leader.
- Conditions for women and minorities are not great. This is a bad one, and a thorn in the field’s side. It’s an impediment to diversity, and–when you combine racism, sexism, lack of paid family leave, poor benefits and long hours– a leading cause of people leaving the field.
If the last decade was a time of big building, maybe the museum world’s next decade could be the time to invest in building leadership capacity at all levels. What will the field look like in 2027 if internships and lower level positions are populated by smart, interested humans fresh from college? What will it look like if many museums have endowed positions, shifting cash to other places on the spread sheet? What will it feel like to be the only part of the non-profit world where women’s wages–all women’s wages–are equitable? And what would it be like if all museum leaders weren’t afraid to demand staffs treat each other with tolerance. Nirvana, right? But it’s something to work for.
We want to end this week’s post with hearty congratulations to our friends Bob Beatty and Steven Miller who both had books come out in September. They are: An American Association for State & Local History Guide to Making Public History (Bob) and The Anatomy of a Museum: An Insider’s Text (Steven). Bravo to two humans who’ve done a lot to prevent museum mediocrity!
Dear museum baby boomers, this post is for you.
If you were born after 1964, this may confirm or support some of your worst fears, so you may want to give it a pass. Here at Leadership Matters we’re now in the chapter where some of our museum mentors are retired–taking cooking classes, exercising like fiends, traveling, reading novels–while others are beginning to announce their retirement dates. Or they are starting to do the work to make that happen: achieving the last, penultimate position, beefing up their consulting business, downsizing, buying the forever home. You know the drill.
Then there are the folks who should be planning their exit, but aren’t. The only decision they’ve made is to stay on as long as possible. They’re treading water, sucking up big(ger) salaries, and contributing in the most lacklustre fashion. They give the rest of us a bad name. Don’t get us wrong. We more than understand that the overall crappiness of museum salaries may mean working ’til age 70 isn’t a choice but a necessity. But, we firmly believe that employees should be judged by their contributions, never by their age, gender or race. And age and length of tenure don’t give you the right to coast–at least not until you’ve announced your exit date. In fact, no matter what your age, we hope you’re not coasting, but instead contributing your best self at work.
Study the colleagues you admire most, whether in the museum field or elsewhere. They are probably individuals who are constantly on a path of reinvention. They are probably not people hiding behind we’ve-always-done-it-that-way–or people who believe social media is the instrument of the devil. They’re the people who somehow link their institutional knowledge, which may be vast, to what’s going on the museum field, and always manage to say something new (and wise) in meetings. They are the people we all want to be when we get over our case of impostor syndrome.
So if you’re a boomer, we urge you to be a contributor ’til the day you pack up your office. Perhaps your museum or heritage organization has a succession plan in place. Whether it does–and they are excellent planning tools–you can have a personal succession plan as well. Just as you strategized your career when you were in your 30’s, 40’s or 50’s, a personal succession plan can help design your exit.
Don’t wait ’til you’re on your way to your retirement party to whine that no one picked your brain, and asked about that great store of knowledge you’ve amassed. Write it down. This actually applies to everyone. Commit work flow and basic tasks to a document. That way even if you have a skiing accident, your colleagues can step up and complete some basic tasks.
And if you are retiring, what information would someone need to do your job well on day one? How have your organization’s quirks informed the way you do things? Were you a path-breaker in your position? Would you be willing to train your successor, and if the answer is yes, what might that look like? Perhaps the most important thing you need to strategize is what you’ll do when your days aren’t consumed with meetings, openings, and planning. Write that down too, but don’t share it. That’s for you and the rest of your life.
It’s summer. The days are long, and a lot of us are on vacation. If you will retire this year, commit to making the next 12 months the most fruitful ever. Go out with a bang.
Museums and Work/Life Balance in a Digital World…plus a P.S. for Paris in Honor of Elaine Heumann GurianPosted: November 16, 2015
As you know, Anne and I spent two days in Washington, D.C. at the Intercom meeting. One of the many conversations we participated in had to do with work/life balance. Actually, the conversation started out as a discussion of museum directors who believe long days are appropriate, and mutated into what leaders, department heads and directors expect from their staff in terms of time. One example offered was a museum leader who isn’t happy if her staff isn’t working at least a 12-hour day. Apparently she’s not a fan of staff who go home at what might be considered a “normal” hour.
We’ve heard this before, not constantly, but enough that it’s concerning. In fact, it came up in the discussion of family issues in this blog a few weeks ago, when women without children commented that being childless meant they were often the ones expected to stay late while people with children left to relieve the nanny or watch a soccer game no questions asked.
My question is why? Is there really a need for anyone, regardless of their family situtation, to stay four hours longer than the normal workday on a regular basis? And, when you combine a long work day with the fact that many employers expect exempt staff to respond to emails regardless of the time of day, then the idea of work/life balance becomes a bit ridiculous. Can you ever give yourself permission to shut work off? Do you?
Are you a leader who discusses how frequently you want staff to respond to email? Within an hour? In minutes? Within a week? And more importantly, what written or verbal expectations do you have regarding email and exempt staff? Are there unspoken expectations that even if they’re told not to respond to emails after business hours, those who do are the favored few, while those who don’t, aren’t?
To complicate matters, the digitization of everything blurs all the lines between work and private life. After all, you can sit in a staff meeting and read a text from your child as easily as one from a colleague. And while it’s great to hear that your daughter passed her math test or your son doesn’t have Lyme disease, the burden is on everyone to make sure that despite the blurred lines, that work gets done. Last, it’s worth acknowledging that it’s likely our own attitudes are shaped by the culture of immediacy that comes with owning an iPhone. Everything is heightened not just the world of work.
Let us know how you and your staff manage the work/life balance thing–especially when it comes to digital communications.
P.S. It’s hard to write or talk about anything this weekend without the horrific happenings in Paris intruding. I hope all of you who are museum leaders will channel your inner Elaine Heumann Gurian this week and think about how your museum, site, organization can connect and deal/cope/unpack what’s happened. Is it enough to acknowledge the terror in the world and offer up a quiet space? Are you using social media to reach your audience about Friday’s events? Last, are there stories in your collection or site that speak to issues of ambush, pain, and loss of control? I think Heumann Gurian would tell all of us that a sure way to be permanently sidelined is to not respond to the world’s events.
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