Gender Equity in the Museum Workplace

New Survey from Leadership Matters Reveals Extent of Gender Discrimination in the Museum Workplace

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TROY, NY (May 30, 2018): Leadership Matters released highlights this week from its recent survey examining the extent of gender discrimination in the museum workforce. The statistics are drawn from a survey conducted by Leadership Matters on Facebook from March through May 2018 to which more than 700 people responded.

The brainchild of Anne W. Ackerson, co-author of Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace, the survey is an attempt to get a sense of where the museum workplace is in the wake of a year of #MeToo incidents. “The survey confirms what we suspected, but hoped wasn’t true,” Ackerson said. “Despite its reputation, the museum workplace mirrors the working world at large.” Sixty-two-percent (62%) of the survey’s respondents reported that they had been the victim of or witnessed gender discrimination at work. “This is a wake-up call for museums, professional associations and graduate programs that there’s critical work to be done to promote equitable and safe workplaces,” she continued, adding, “It seems clear that for museums working toward long term sustainability, gender equity and inclusion must be part of the equation.”

Forty-nine-percent (49%) of the respondents reported being a victim of verbal or sexual harassment, and more than half of the respondents say their paychecks reflect the gender pay gap. In addition to answering questions, survey respondents also wrote hundreds of comments, providing a rich commentary on everything from “mansplaining” to the difficulty of being heard to whether they feel more or less optimistic regarding gender equity in 2018. One wrote, “Made to do stereotypical “women’s tasks” like getting the coffee or food, “secretarial work” like taking minutes or notes, arranging meetings, etc. when men with the same job title or lower in rank would not be asked to do such things,” while another added that she was barred from promotion because “Young men with families must come first.”

“Gender equity isn’t the sole province of cis-gender women,” said Joan Baldwin, who is the primary author the the Leadership Matters blog, and is a co-author with Ackerson of Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace. LGBTQ employees also face workplace discrimination as witnessed by this quote: “Because I’m gay, I have had employees not talk to me or make eye contact with me, treat me differently and have used hate speech about gay people four-feet from me.”

Research tells us that museums are among the most trusted organizations in the country, yet many museum workers find themselves the victims of a workplace rife with gender inequities. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the respondents’ comments underscore the emotional toll gender inequity takes on museum employees. “One of the survey’s most heart-rending comments was the single sentence that said ‘I feel like a second class citizen,” Ackerson said. “No one in this field should feel like that.”

Museums employ more than 350,000 people with a workforce that is fairly evenly divided between women and men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Survey respondents represent all museum disciplines with 30-percent representing art museums/art centers/sculpture gardens. More than half of the respondents are in the 20 – 39 age range.

About Leadership Matters: Joan Baldwin and Anne W. Ackerson are veteran museum professionals whose interest in museum leadership and gender equity have resulted in two books, Leadership Matters (AltaMira Press, 2013) and Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace (Routledge, 2017), along with white papers on GenX leadership and leadership succession for the Museum Association of New York. Their blog, Leadership Matters, explores a wide range of leadership and equity issues. They are frequent presenters on these topics and co-teach a course on museum leadership for the Johns Hopkins University Museum Studies graduate program.

About Women in the Museum: Baldwin’s and Ackerson’s work studying gender equity in the museum workplace resulted in the book Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace, which is based on surveys, focus groups, and interviews with women and men to trace the extent of gender inequity in the museum field. As research progressed, the authors heard stories of discrimination that would make you think we were back in the 1950s and 60s. But they also heard stories of resilience and creativity as their sources spoke of getting work done. They also discovered the true depth and breadth of women’s contributions to museums, and early attempts by women to organize for greater equity.

For more information contact: leadershipmatters1213@gmail.com


Gender Equity in Museums Platform Paper Released (2016)

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December 2016:  The platform paper encourages readers to be in touch and to post examples of equity in practice at our Padlet.  The links in the paper aren’t live, but they are here.

To reach GEMM by email:  GEMMuseums@gmail.com

Like the paper’s designer?  Reach Luke at lukeputz@gonkel.com

November 2016:  A Call for Gender Equity in the Museum Workplace is the newest publication from Leadership Matters and colleagues. In addition to highlighting some of the most egregious equity issues, the paper outlines action steps for addressing them.


2016:  Our manuscript for Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace was sent off in August 2016 to Routledge with an anticipated publication date of spring 2017.  Meanwhile the gender equity conversation continues apace — hardly a day goes by without a news article, blog post or research paper on the issue.  And now on the eve of a US presidential election that could see the country’s first woman commander-in-chief, gender equity at all levels and in all industries is as relevant and as urgent as ever.


2015:  Big news, dear readers. In November we signed a contract with Left Coast Press for a book tentatively titled Women & Museums: Lessons from the Field. Our editors will be Mitch Allen from Left Coast and John Strand, formerly head of AAM’s publishing program. There are many things the museum field doesn’t talk about. Gender is one of them. We hope Women & Museums will address some of those questions. Here are a few thoughts from the proposal we shared with Left Coast Press:

Museums are complicated places. Non-profits caring for America’s patrimony, they are alternately cast as elite or powerful, fun or boring, important or irrelevant. With collections and exhibitions both lauded and vilified, museums are sometimes significant economic drivers and sometimes astoundingly vulnerable. Collectively they employ 400,000 people, more than half of them women. Women & Museums: Lessons from the Field will delve into the professional lives of a female workforce who works across the spectrum from support staff to curators, CEOs, and more.

A lively, thoughtful examination of women working at all levels in today’s museums, Women & Museums is first and foremost a book about the triumphs and challenges women in the museum field face. Is work in the museum field different for women than for men? Is it different than the business world? How does leadership, internal decision-making and external perception change in the female dominated museum world? Are workplace challenges more acute for women if a field is under-resourced, under-appreciated, or in some instances, under-utilized? Supported by a series of interviews with women in museums big and small, at every stage of their careers, this book explores the 21st century workplace through their eyes and the museum lens.

While issues of diversity and sexual orientation provide important historical and clarifying context to the narrative, this book focuses on the challenges and survival tactics shared by women in the museum workplace, an environment almost exclusively nonprofit, under-resourced, and little understood by the public.

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This is a big topic. We’ve already had great support from the museum sisterhood, and have assembled a stellar group of women to act as an advisory group. They include:

  • Paula Birnbaum, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Academic Director of the Museum Studies Master Program at University of San Francisco
  • LaNesha DeBardelaben, VP of Assessment & Community Engagement, Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit (pursuing a PhD in U.S. History with a specialization in Women’s and Gender Studies)
  • Kimberli Gant, Doctoral Candidate, University of Texas at Austin and author of “The ‘Face’ of New York State Museums: An Introductory Analysis on Staff Demographics”; former Director of Exhibitions, Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (NYC)
  • Martha Morris, Assistant Director of Museum Studies, George Washington University
  • Marjorie Schwarzer, Author and Administrative Director, Museum Studies, University of San Francisco
  • Marsha Semmel, Senior Advisor, Noyce Leadership Institute
  • Sally Roesch Wagner, Ph.D, Founder, Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation and Professor of Women’s Studies at Syracuse University

We’ve also begun meeting with small groups of women–at AAM in May, at AASLH in September–for informal discussions. Our next women’s roundtable takes place at the Noah Webster House and West Hartford Historical Society (CT), January 21 at 5 pm. For more information, contact Liz Shapiro at the Connecticut League of History Organizations. In the coming months we’ll ask those of you who are interested to take part in a survey. Please let us know if you would like to participate. In the meantime, think about your own story as it relates to gender and leadership. Have something to say? Let us know.

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4 Comments on “Gender Equity in the Museum Workplace”

  1. GD says:

    Very good initiative, thank you! Gabrielle Desgagné, Museology Assistant, Musée des maîtres et artisans du Québec, Canada

  2. Lee Humiston says:

    This is all so much bull… The only, and I mean only, qualification is competence…


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