Women, prepare for a radical change

The gender status quo of our sector is unacceptable
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Sara Wajid
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Until recently, I’d met two female museum directors in 10 years. I’ve never hankered after the top job – it looks a slog.

But since becoming involved in a new scheme, I’ve been wondering if by working in museums, where men are in charge and women are worker bees, I’ve internalised the message that leadership is not for the likes of me.

The gender status quo of our sector is unacceptable. A 2012 survey of 50 museums found that 90% of chairs were male and 73% of board members. Only two of the 16 national museums sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are led by women. That’s rubbish.

Now the Women Leaders in Museums Network (WLMN) has handed me a chance to do something about it through collective action.

The Confidence, Choice, Connections programme brings together 100 women in regional groups to support one another’s professional development, campaign for change, and benefit the wider workforce.

I’d heard intriguing rumours about the WLMN but I was suspicious. A friend went to its speed mentoring session at the Museums Association conference in 2011 and met a wise woman who became her mentor – and her career rocketed.

I was impressed and annoyed in equal measure. These over-achievers obviously had clout but how were they cascading it to the rest of us and why weren’t they more transparent?
It turns out that women at the top are quite busy people.

In 2006, Virginia Tandy (then the director of Manchester City Galleries) and Diane Lees (then V&A Museum of Childhood director) established WLMN with a grant from the Cultural Leadership Programme to support women in senior roles in museums through peer mentoring and collaborative learning.

It has worked brilliantly for its 38 members, who testify to the value of being in a women-only network. Now they are addressing the question of succession with a crowd-sourced mentoring scheme for a new cohort of women museum leaders and emerging leaders.

After two days’ training in coaching and co-mentoring, and a meeting of the whole group, I’m on nodding terms with many of the most senior and influential women in my field. These leader types are not all tall white blokes; I now see that leadership comes in many forms. There are other ways of fulfilling leadership potential and being ambitious than just aiming for the top of traditional management hierarchies.
 
I don’t yet know how this selective grooming can benefit the wider sector and the public we serve. But over the next year, I’ll be plotting and scheming to spark radical change for ourselves and for women in museums. More from us soon.

Sara Wajid is the senior public programmes manager at the National Maritime Museum, London


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