Male directors still the norm

Many regional museums have female directors, but the top jobs at national museums are still dominated by men. This is changing though.
Caroline Parry
The UK’s national museums and arts institutions are lagging behind their regional counterparts when it comes to appointing women into the top jobs.

As Maria Balshaw, the former director of Manchester’s Whitworth and the city’s director of culture, takes over as the director of Tate, it highlights once again that it is rare for a woman to take the helm of a major national museum.
It is the first time a woman has held the top role at Tate, and there has yet to be a female director at the British Museum or National Gallery. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s only female director was Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, who held the post from 1987 to 1995.

In Scotland, National Galleries of Scotland and National Museums Scotland are both led by men.Sharon Ament, the director of the Museum of London, believes appointing a women into a senior role at a big museum is still a radical move because male directors remain “the norm”.

Energy and attitude

Ament says: “If you look at the level of energy and attitude these women bring to these roles, they are mavericks.”

It is a different story in regional museums, says Laura Pye, the head of culture at Bristol City Council. “I am the fourth woman in a row to head culture in Bristol, and Maria was in Manchester for 10 years,” Pye says. “The nationals do need to catch up.”

According to Pye, the different recruitment processes between the national institutions and the museum services play a key role. “It is different at regional level, as the interview panel has to be a fair representation and the process is more transparent,” she says.

Changing times

With institutions including the Imperial War Museum, Tate Liverpool, Tate Modern, RAF Museum, National Museums Northern Ireland, Museum of London, National Army Museum, Geffrye Museum and the National Science and Media Museum having female directors, there is a sense that the sector is changing.

Sonia Solicari joined London’s Geffrye Museum as director in January, succeeding David Dewing, who had been at the museum for 25 years. Solicari describes the rise in the number of women in director posts as welcome in addressing the long-acknowledged imbalance in the museum sector, where most staff are female but most directors are men.

“While I applaud this shift towards a greater number of women at chief executive level, and am proud to be one, there are other issues at stake,” she says. “Museums have a long way to go before they boast a truly diverse workforce.

“Sticking with the gender issue alone, there is a worrying lack of men applying to the sector. I have overseen several recruitment processes recently where there hasn’t been one male applicant. What does this mean for the sector, going forward?”

Obstacles to diversity

For Kim Streets, the chief executive at Museums Sheffield, there are many obstacles to attracting a more diverse workforce in general. “Pay is an issue,” she says. “Women are more likely to take lower pay for their dream job. But there is also an overall perception that you need money behind you to come into this sector.”

Meanwhile, Tonya Nelson, the head of museums and collections at UCL, including the Grant Museum of Zoology and UCL Art Museum, believes museums need to create succession plans to identify top performers in key areas such as learning, visitor services and marketing, and offer more opportunities to develop leadership skills.

“The by-product might be that more women are considered for roles,” she says. “However, the point is that developing talented people from different functional backgrounds means you have a more agile leadership that can respond to challenges more efficiently and effectively.”

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