Sexism in the sector needs to be challenged

Sarah Hartshorne, Issue 117/12, p14, 01.12.2017

How do we get to a position where we are not surprised that a woman is in the most senior role?

There is no sentence that better sums up my experience of sexism in museums than a comment casually directed at me during a meeting with a board of museum trustees: “Women on boards are as useful as chocolate teapots.” It’s done in full view, without aggression, and usually by an older generation of men, unconscious of their prejudice.

You may think this article has been prompted by the spotlight on sexism sparked by the Harvey Weinstein allegations. The timing is a coincidence, but the sense of inequality in the workplace is not. I’ve been wanting to write on this topic following a conversation I had with colleagues a few months ago, sharing the above experience. Genuine surprise from my male peers followed. They were unaware that this level of overt sexism still existed in the museum workplace. This led to a sharing of experiences from the females about the everyday sexism they felt in their professional lives, a face-to-face version of the #MeToo social media outpouring that we have seen recently.

Within the group, experiences ranged from unwanted touching, being underheard and undervalued at meetings, to a general presumption from the profession and the public that if they were in a senior role, they were most likely to be a man. The evidence I have gathered has thrown up recurring examples. Females were regularly expected to take notes during meetings, while men were asked to chair. Others felt that ideas and solutions they put forward were often credited to male colleagues. Several women also commented on their perceived lack of agency within their organisation, while simultaneously men appeared to be favoured for leadership positions. These trends are dangerous, and for the sector to thrive, we need to be able to openly challenge them, without fear.

Going back to my chocolate teapot experience; my role in the meeting was to aid a variety of museum boards with their long-term sustainability. More specifically, it was to make sure that succession planning was robust and that each museum had the necessary skills to take its organisations forward. The remark, which happened in a meeting with male and female trustees, went unchallenged. At the time, my professional rebuttal was that perhaps they found female members of their board ineffectual because their recruitment was restricted to subject enthusiasts and was not transparent nor accountable. As you might imagine, this practice did not lead to a diverse set of trustees armed with the right skills and experiences to create a resilient and effective organisation.

As an individual, I now feel valued and respected in the workplace. Most people believe that the museum profession is a friendly and wonderful place to work. Yet I can think of many instances throughout my career, especially when new to the sector, where I have felt uncomfortable – physically and psychologically – due to behaviour motivated by sexism. It’s important that our love of working in museums does not foster a culture where sexism can go unnoticed.

My motive for writing this article was to raise awareness on this issue and to prompt debate.

Do we all agree that sexism exists in the museum sector? Does everyone always get an equal hearing? How do we get to a position where we are not surprised that a woman is in the most senior role? These are questions I’d encourage all museum professionals to reflect on and discuss frankly and openly. The more we challenge and evolve as a workforce, the more we equip ourselves to represent current audiences and working practices. As, quite frankly, a workforce where sexism exists is about as useful as a chocolate teapot. 


Sort by: Most recent - Most liked
14.02.2018, 15:06
From my experience, maternity leave alone can create problems.
I suspect that assumptions that I would return part time led to staffing tensions when I came back full time. Chat outside the organisation then seems to have led to one museum person thinking it was ok for her to criticise my length of service, prior to maternity leave, during peer group introductions. After twenty years in museums, it was upsetting to find my professional reputation defined in such terms.
Luanne Meehitiya
Interpretation consultant, Cultural Innovations
04.12.2017, 10:43
you can tell this winds me up as I used the word "hence" twice in one paragraph - urgh!

There doesn't seem to be any way to edit or delete comments once you've made them? This would be a useful function
Patrick Steel
Website Editor, Museums Association
06.12.2017, 12:03
Hi Luanne -

Drop me an email with the things you want to change/delete and I'll see what I can do!

All best,
Luanne Meehitiya
Interpretation consultant, Cultural Innovations
04.12.2017, 10:25
Regrettably, I'm sure there is overt sexism in every sector. However, I think low pay has a lot to do with the leadership gender inequality. Pay is so low that it doesn't pay to return to work after maternity leave as your salary is eaten up by the huge cost of childcare. Hence women drop out of the sector or go part time for many years after having children, whilst men progress. Hence a female dominated sector with a male dominated leadership.
07.12.2017, 13:29
Museums are one sector where there is lots of part-time work available, even if often because of job cuts, and these jobs suit women with children who prefer to work part-time. I don't think low pay is a prerogative of the museums sector though, nor is a male-dominated leadership. In every sector what we need is better quality affordable childcare, and more equal gender attitudes towards child-raising. Most of my female colleagues have children, and when their children are ill it seems always to be them who stays at home, almost never their husbands.

To get to the top in most careers you need single-minded focus and an ability to work all hours if need be. Museums are no exception. It seems much more difficult for women with children to do this. We need a radical overhaul of attitudes to child-rearing in society as a whole so that both parents, who after all presumably chose to have children, feel equal responsibility for them in every way.
Luanne Meehitiya
Interpretation consultant, Cultural Innovations
07.12.2017, 14:39
I couldn't agree more that this is a wider problem and that we need affordable childcare and an overhaul in attitudes to child rearing.

I do think museums are unusual though, because for me to have a female dominated workforce with a male dominated leadership is shocking. I also think museum pay is exceptionally low (7% below even comparable low paid sectors) and falling fast (16% fall in real terms in 5 years, 7th fastest fall of any job sector) especially for such a qualified workforce