Women’s Forum: Reflections on Strategy

During the almost four hour ride home a few weeks ago I had time to reflect on the 45-minute session at the  NC Museum’s Conference entitled: Women’s Forum: A Discussion of Issues Affecting Women in Museums.  As one of four panelists charged with exploring the experience of women in a suddenly truncated 45-minute session, I felt like we didn’t do our topic or ourselves much justice. In an industry that is dominated by women I actually don’t think we spend nearly enough time examining the experiences of women in leadership or at all with respect to museums.

What were we missing?

  1. Time, obviously. This is a topic that could have easily been the theme of a year-long symposium. We obviously needed more time. Even our original 75minute time slot would have given us time to more authentically engage with the groups around us for more productive sharing.  I guess they needed more time for hotel lunch…?
  2. Audience participation.  The people in the room were awesome. Hailing from all over the state, with employment experience ranging from those still in museum studies programs at UNCG to one woman who is less than a year from retirement.  These various voices all shared valuable perspectives and strategy for the 10minutes we allotted for connecting to each other. There may have been two people who self- identified as men in the room.  This bothered me on a visceral level.  If you title a session a women’s forum is that portentous that we will only discuss scary woman things? What constitutes issues for women in museums?! Maybe they will only talk about breasts, babies, and FMLA ( or lack thereof)!!! I look forward to the evaluation feedback.
  3. Calibration.  We, the people who were brave enough to come to the women’s forum, seemed pretty limited in imagination. All things were baselined through the lens of what is “normal” for North Carolina. And to that, I say, nay nay! We should always be leery of using the behaviors we have seen exhibited in our lovely and short-sighted state as the measure of success.  We have an opportunity to create space, think big and share widely so that #womeninmuseums is not a hashtag that gets 1-2 hits per year.




Let’s move past classic notions of where women belong in museums.



What can we do?

  1. Share strategy. That was the original intent of this session.  Our stories would illuminate some of the realities for women in museums, highlighting the challenges inherent in pursuing a career in a male-dominated field while seeking to honor strategy and tactics that work to remedy day- to day issues and barriers.
  2. Calibrate to National, not North Carolina. I know it is tempting to say well NC is so unique! We have historic sites, houses, and museums that can’t be compared to any other state.  I applaud this AND urge us all to move towards equitable practice.  Many of us are still living with restrictions from the 2008 economic downturn, struggling to create livelihoods with salaries that are likely 10 years or more behind.  Out state history and experiential educational experience is valuable and what we value we invest in. I enjoyed a more comprehensive look at women and museums found here.
  3. Call it out! 3 cheers for this support and equity strategy.  If you see gender inequity say something in the moment. Note whether in group meetings and interviews if candidates address the entire panel or only the men. Note if younger people without families are unduly expected to “cover” more evening and weekend programs. Note if the policies around family leave and sick time are reasonably aligned and reflect the realities of staff needs. This can be done transparently. YES! You can involve your staff in a policy draft about the staff!

We talked some about negotiating salary and benefits, ageism, racism, childcare, mentoring, pipelines, interview tactics… but clearly we couldn’t cover it all in 45 minutes.  I urge ALL of us in museums, sites, centers and other places of informal learning to take advantage of your best resource: Women.

Take advantage of their leadership ability- promote exceptional leaders, not by gender norms, but by the quality of programming and expertise. Need help  deciphering if this is a blind spot for you, try:

Take advantage of their mentorship- great support systems can shape the career trajectory of museum workers. A mentor can help avoid pitfalls and chart pathways to leadership.

Take advantage of this moment to reflect on how women have shaped and sustained museums across the country through cutting edge programming, interpretation, curation, exhibit design,  development- yet are often not the face of the institution or board leadership.






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