Women’s stories must be the focus for leadership - Museums Association

Women’s stories must be the focus for leadership

Discrimination is still prevalent, say Siobhán McGuirk and Nirmal Puwar
Inlcusion Leadership
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Siobhán McGuirk
Nirmal Puwar

Positions of power and influence in the UK have been historically reserved for men who look and speak a certain way. For women who work in museums, even at the highest levels, white, able-bodied, upper-class masculinity remains the yardstick against which all are measured. This is pronounced in national institutions, though pressures to conform to what is perceived as the norm remain in smaller organisations. 

In the workplace, people who do not match that norm are regarded as “space invaders”. The experience of being treated as a person out of place can be mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting. 

These findings have emerged from research we have been carrying out since 2018, as part of a broader project investigating gender and cultures of equality internationally. More than 160 women working in UK museums contributed to the research, through surveys, group discussions, event participation and oral history interviews. As we continue analysing our findings, key themes have emerged that reveal pressing concerns for a sector that, despite some progress, continues to grapple with equality, diversity and inclusion.

First, we have found that everyday experiences of discrimination are commonplace, but often take the form of subtle or normalised behaviours. Two-thirds of those who responded to our survey said they had experienced or witnessed bullying or harassment at work. Of those who experienced it, only half received support. Many said they were greeted with empathy and recognition from colleagues, but rarely practical support or intervention from managers. All of our interviewees could recall specific incidents of differential treatment at work – from being told again and again that they were “very small to be a director”, to hearing racial slurs or being repeatedly mistaken for a caterer – due to their race, gender, age, class, physical appearance and/or caring responsibilities. 

Second, space invaders often respond to such experiences by trying to change their appearance or demeanour to better fit the expected mould of museum leadership. One woman said: “At work, I speak a bit more posh than I would normally. I don’t like that. But I know it is necessary because they treat you differently. They might not realise it, but they do.” 

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These efforts are in vain. Bodies cannot be bent and reformed; it is the mould that must change. As the director of a national museum explained:“You can either conform to the stereotype of what’s desirable in a woman, and be quiet and self-effacing, ladylike and tidy. Or you can be loud and raucous and, you know, more like a man. Neither of them works really.” 

These findings are particularly relevant in the context of a dominant museum leadership orthodoxy focused on building “resilient” institutions and workers. This philosophy assumes an even playing field exists for people trying to forge careers in the sector – and implies that those who struggle just lack resilience. It is a persuasive proposition: despite wide recognition of bias, prejudice and bullying, a fifth of the women surveyed cited their lack of confidence or self-doubt as holding them back at work. 

In fact, far more attention must be paid to the structures and conditions that present different workers with different levels of adversity. A first step is acknowledging harmful institutional dynamics and the silence that often surrounds them. That silence can lead to discrimination being normalised – something that cannot be changed, only endured.

Our findings confirm insights previously expressed by museum workers. Drawing on conversations held in the Museum Detox network, Sara Wajid wrote in Museums Journal in 2018 that “working-class, Black, Asian and minority-ethnic workers are more likely to be… bullied, undermined, undervalued, suffer racial discrimination and, ultimately, leave the sector”. In conclusion, Wajid asked: “Who in your organisation… has quietly left the table bruised and defeated?” Her question remains poignant and urgent.

Our short film, If Museum Walls Could Speak, underscores Wajid’s point. In the film, quotes from interviewees appear on museum walls, in the spaces between exhibits, as their words are read by actors, against the hubbub of a busy gallery. It aims to highlight experiences of sexism and racism embedded in institutional structures that persist seemingly unnoticed. 

We are writing a book that explores these issues in greater detail, and foregrounds the words of women – particularly women of colour – who work in UK museums. Their stories must take centre stage if a new generation of museum leaders is to emerge.

Siobhán McGuirk is a lecturer in anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London (@s_mcguirk) and Nirmal Puwar is a reader in sociology and co-director of the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths, University of London (@spatialmutation)

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