A more flexible approach will benefit us all

Zara Matthews, Issue 118/09, p16, 01.09.2018
We need to apply flexible working principles to leadership and governance
Unequal pay, low pay, low diversity, a female-dominated workforce – I believe these issues are all connected, and that one way to address them is not only through flexible working, but also through access to training and development, applying the principles of flexible working to open up leadership and governance opportunities.

I am the typical middle-aged, middle-class, well-educated white woman dominating the sector’s middle tier, and the lack of flexible working practices is limiting for me. But I see a key challenge for our sector is how to push forward with equal access to leadership and career development across the board.

Working in museums can often feel like a glass cabinet, but none of us exist in isolation. All the fears, responsibilities and pressures that affect our daily lives can feel magnified when we try to push ourselves to open the doors, rise above the ceilings or, indeed, look around the corners. And at the same time, there is the question of how complicit we are in allowing this to continue.

Recent articles in Museums Journal by Sarah Hartshorne and Liz Johnson resonated with me, as they outlined familiar experiences and frustrations. The prejudices and presumptions about our sector as being dusty and behind the times feel unfair and outdated. But recent reports show an increasingly narrow sector made up of educated white women, plus low pay, budget cuts and frustration from under-represented workers and audiences.

My own experience includes multiple examples of daily sexism: “you can’t get pregnant while you work here”; and from a visitor with an enquiry: “oh dear, I was hoping for a man”. My frustrations with the sector include the job I had to turn down because flexible working was “not an option”.

I now work for an organisation in which there are female role models, as well as equality policies, flexible working, and training and development opportunities. Things are generally good.

Hierarchical organisations also bring challenges for developing as a leader. Leadership is often recognised and presented in a traditional way, and the current economic situation brings huge pressures on capacity and morale. Leaders need to self-identify, be self-confident and know how to influence. The sector’s training and development tends to be high cost, and involve additional travel and attendance at residential courses.

In 2014, a project looking at the leadership development needs of England’s cultural sector by economic development and research consultancy TBR identified the main barriers as a lack of confidence, issues with caring responsibilities and insufficient opportunities within their organisation. For me, the latter of these remains a significant barrier. The flexible practice of normal work is not available for training and does not fit our preconceptions of how a leader should be.

There are leaders in the cultural sector who work flexibly, and it feels that we, and more significantly those who appoint leaders, are more able to accept the practice. The University of Leicester’s Behind the Scenes of a 21st Century Museum online course has shown the reach of digital learning.

The Museums Association’s Transformers programme shows how a different approach can make a huge difference, while the Women Leaders in Museums network is growing. In the spring, Flexible Working Week saw a big push from the sector on social media to raise awareness and encourage conversations on #flexingyourtalent.

We need to create those opportunities. And we must be clear about what we need. I want training and development to be offered on a flexible basis at all levels – especially in leadership.

Zara Matthews is the market town museums manager at Leicestershire County Council

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