Leading Questions - Museums Association

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Leading Questions

Dawn Austwick asks why there are so few women in the top museum posts
Dawn Austwick
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Just after I was asked to write this piece, I watched a group discussion on Newsnight among public service managers. The topic was reform and there were four or five men and one woman in the group.

There were obvious differences: a generation gap (the woman was younger), the men wore suits, while the woman did not. But it was what they were saying and how they were communicating that was extraordinarily different. The men talked structures and power; the woman talked about people, networks and organic change.

It was a stark reminder of how different we can be, and it was telling that the real story was what was not happening and not being said. It struck me that one of the great benefits of courses such as City University's Cultural Leadership Programme, which aims to get more women into leadership positions, is that they provide the space for some of the unspoken to emerge, be explored, and understood.

After a decade in the City and a decade in the museum world, I can't claim to have answers to the perennial question of why there are so few women leaders and managers, given that there is such a high number of women at entry level.

Style and culture clearly play a leading role. The museum sector can be more traditional than others - language, habits and unspoken rules loom larger in power and influence than in other sectors. The sector is a master of what is not said rather than what is said - and if you haven't grown up in that club (and many women won't have) it can be hard to read the silence between the words. These sorts of errors of judgement can be costly and long-lasting.

But some areas of museum practice are dominated by women in terms of numbers and seniority. Development is the obvious example. So, why do so few development directors move on to more general senior management positions? Have women succeeded in development because it is still not seen as a core museum discipline? Or is it because it is a very discrete discipline and is not sufficient preparation for leadership positions on its own?

It's probably a bit of both, but there are plenty of excellent fundraisers who can contribute more to their organisations, with broader management development and investment.

Of course, the same argument is true for curators and conservators. There are many women in these fields and there are now more women in the top jobs. But why are these appointments still unusual? Well, swapping scholarship for seniority may not be that attractive if autonomy rather than authority motivates you.

And then there's that old chestnut - confidence and self-belief. Is our social conditioning still so strong that the nagging doubt about whether we ought to be at the table sits inside us?

Flexible working remains an issue, but a more wholesale redefinition is required - for men and women - because a world of workaholic leaders and managers is rather dull and mono-cultural.

Dawn Austwick is the director of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and is a visiting tutor on City University's cultural leadership course www.city.ac.uk

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