Cultural sector support staff are undervalued, finds research - Museums Association

Cultural sector support staff are undervalued, finds research

A consultation has found that assistant roles are sometimes misunderstood and not well respected
Jonathan Knott
Support staff in the cultural sector are overlooked and undervalued, new research has found.

A digital consultation of more than 100 cultural leaders and support staff found that support roles are “not well understood and are sometimes not well respected”.

Both groups told researchers from the University of Oxford that there were issues with the way that the work of support staff such as personal and executive assistants is perceived. One support staff respondent said roles can be seen as a “dumping ground”, while a leader said they “can be abused and used as a dogsbody role”.

The research report says that a “high level of discontent” among support staff may be contributing to high turnover in these roles. More than a third of the support staff surveyed (36%) said they looking for new opportunities or would be likely to start looking in the next 6-12 months.

Similar proportions said they could see themselves staying on their current role for more than a year (33%) and for more than three years (31%).

Almost all of those intending to stay long term were over 35. However, there was a range of ages among those most keen to leave, showing “there is not a clear link between career stages and the frequency of movement between roles”.

The motivations for looking elsewhere were often linked to the lack of respect for the roles. Other factors included limited opportunities to develop skills, status and pay levels. Ninety per cent of the support staff interviewed were on permanent contracts.

The report says that “the persistence of a strong desire for movement, despite the level of security on offer, should be a cause for concern and for further investigation”.

The consultation found that support staff were valued for their abilities to find solutions, organise, and build relationships. This created time for leaders and enabled their organisations to function at their best.

Support roles were found to incorporate a broad range of tasks across office management, operations, event management, and communications. Core activities tended to include organising a director’s diary, filtering their emails and acting as their “confidante”, as well as handling general inquiries and supporting meetings.

Although most support staff said they had a good working relationship with the team or individual they supported, negative experiences such as lacking ownership, being constantly on call and emotional isolation were also reported.

The report recommends that in order to maximise the potential of support roles, institutions should clearly define responsibilities and establish effective communications systems.

It also calls for the cultural sector to regularly review workloads and priorities, celebrate work that takes place behind the scenes, and make space for honest discussion about career development.

Xa Sturgis, the director of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archeology at the University of Oxford, said: “We hope that the report will provide leaders with the inspiration and tools to ensure the expertise of support staff can be recognised and working practices can be improved for the benefit of all.”

The research was part of the Supporting Leadership programme, which is led by the University of Oxford’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums division. Researchers consulted 124 individuals from 61 different cultural institutions. Forty percent of respondents worked in museums, with others representing the wider cultural sector including galleries, heritage sites and performing arts institutions.

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