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Sunday, 1 October 2017

Everyday sexism in Museums

Image via @feministfightclub
Here at the Ministry we have promised to be champions of women in museums and draw attention to issues that we encounter in our working life. After a recent conversation with some fellow female museum workers, we were left wondering about chauvinism in a female-dominated field. The Ministry of Curiosity’s Terri Dendy and Laura Humphreys discuss big picture misogyny and everyday sexism in arts and heritage.

Museums are in that rarified position of having a female-dominated workforce - a (male) colleague recently joked that having one man in a pool of job applicants counted as ‘diversity’. Anecdotally, those working in curatorial, collections management, and learning often report that their teams are almost exclusively female. Great, right?!

Well, kind of. Arts Council England’s most recent report (2015-2016) states that around 55-62% of the museum workforce is female. Not quite the dramatic split you were expecting? Us neither. But there is a simple, if depressing, explanation. The same ACE report states that in the upper echelons of Arts organisations, it’s still a sausage party - up to 66% of leadership roles are occupied by men. And as for the very top jobs? The museum industry has made some progress in appointing women to top jobs recently - like Sonia Solicari at the Geffrye or Maria Balshaw at Tate - there is still a long way to go. If you look at membership of the National Museum Director’s Council, 13 of 45 member directors are female - roughly 28%. These statistics all refer to the UK - is it any better across the pond? NOPE - of America’s 13 largest Art museums, only one is headed by a woman. That’s 93% male!

And as for why? It seems to be a sorry combination of all the usual suspects. Museums are generally a low-pay sector (don’t get us started on what this does to diversity as a whole), and when that pay has to cover childcare costs, you’re often paying to go to work . Men in leadership roles tend to recruit more men to leadership roles, and representation of power in museum displays and boardrooms alike is rather oestrogen-lite. And then there’s the old chestnut that women don’t think they are qualified or experienced enough, and without encouragement don’t tend to go for that stretch position of power.  

These sorts of statistics for the top of the field are available in several places (if often sorely lacking in intersectionality and detail), but what of the lower ranks? Early to mid-career stats are even more difficult to extract meaningful data from. But something that keeps coming up over lunch, on courier trips, at the pub and in angry whatsapp groups are the stories of everyday sexism piling the pressure on women in the museum sector.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the more physical aspects of our work. Collections roles require a range of skills, and in the all-hands-on-deck chaos of a gallery install, from fine art to spaceships, is where chivalry/chauvinism really comes into its own. Women know their way around a toolkit, safely maneuver heavy objects around, and manage large teams of contractors on a building site. And if they can’t do it yet, they can learn! But stories vary from the common ‘I’ll lift that for you’ to the downright outrageous - ensuring that a man is seen doing a ‘man’s job’ by visitors, because it’s ridiculous that a respectable girl should be seen anywhere near a scaffold tower, right?! Her delicate lady-brain isn’t used to heights.  Between us, we have been happily carrying a crate when a contractor take it out of our hands, been ‘taught’ how to screw mirror plates on after fitting hundreds and judged for our looks, not to mention become invisible on a gallery project we’re managing when a more junior male colleague appears.

Image via @feministfightclub instagram
And this behaviour is not limited to on-gallery situations: after a consultant visited a National Museum to talk about representations of women, we overheard three male colleagues discussing how wrong she was: without a trace of irony her presentation was described as ‘hysterical’ and alas, they did not mean funny.

It’s tempting to put out a call for more examples of this everyday sexism in museums (a la, but we thought that was bloody depressing. And women don’t need to hear about stories of sexism - we live through them all the bloody time. So, instead, we thought we would ask you: how do YOU deal with sexism in museums? Here’s a few from us to get started…

  • It hurts us to include this one but we’ve been blindsided on too many occasions not to: when someone subjects you to some old fashioned casual sexism, CALL. IT. OUT. This one is easier said than done, we know. In our early careers, on short-term contracts or even as volunteers, we let things go, because kicking up a fuss seemed more trouble than it was worth. Be polite - even when people really don’t deserve it - and don’t let it slide.

  • Are you a manager or a senior team member? DOUBLE the above point. Then triple it. Junior colleagues may lack the confidence or experience to call out sexism - especially from contractors or visitors. You have a responsibility to them to make sure your staff work in a respectful environment.

  • Embrace the sisterhood: AMPLIFY! After being constantly spoken over in a meeting, we were the beneficiary of Amplification: a tactic from the Obama Administration which women employed to make sure bright junior voices are heard - when you hear a good idea that gets shouted over or ignored, repeat it! Say you're colleague had a good idea and run over it again, or make room for her to do so!  

    You know what? She helped a bright idea make a difference. AMPLIFY!

  • Believe in yourself, your abilities, and your ambition. Get a mentor, join a network, follow @MuseumAgender.

So, how do YOU guys smash the patriarchy in your museum career? Leave a comment!!

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