Thursday, November 3, 2011

Want to Be a Museum Director? Evidently, Be a Man

This is just a quick post that I hope stimulates an organization or individual to do considerably more research--and, I hope encourages feedback and comments.  On Facebook, I like the Art Museum Partnership as they post interesting news, including appointments of new directors at larger museums.  I realized that it seemed like almost every face that popped up in the announcement of a new director was a male;  a white male. 

And I thought really?  So I went back through their FB announcements to the beginning (mid-August of this year).  And here's what I found.  Of the 15 directors named,  only 4 were women, just 26%.  Two of those four positions were at university art museums, which may suggest a different process than a board hiring process undertaken by stand-alone museums.  Admittedly, this is a highly unscientific survey, but revealing nonetheless.
Certainly, as anyone who's ever attended a museum conference can attest, this is a field filled with women.  Why so few women museum directors?  What do we know about the make-up of boards--are they mostly male?  What is it that boards think male directors can do better?  And as a field, why don't we make more noise about this?  Funny how future of museums seems an awfully lot like the museums of the past.


Laura Roberts said...

My data is several years old, but I think the regional salary surveys still ask gender ... 60% of the field was women, 70% of the directors were men. The women were, by and large, at smaller museums... not just college but also children's, history... Are women not willing to make the sacrifices of big time directorships (relocating family, working many evenings, raising money) or are boards reluctant to hire women?

Linda said...

Good points, Laura--but I wonder whether any small museum director wouldn't say that they make those sacrifices (raising money, evenings, etc, etc) for far less financial reward. I'd put the onus on boards, I think.

JenniferQuail said...

Honestly, I find men to be better managers than women. They seem more comfortable making negative decisions (saying no to donors, reprimanding employees, making budget cuts, etc) without worrying about people's feelings, and at not taking things like board decisions as personal attacks. Also clearer at giving directions. A better question is are women in lower positions who exhibit these traits discouraged from them (ie where men are called decisive, are women, particularly by other women, labeled harsh?)

I find men both easier to work WITH and to work FOR. I don't feel like I'm constantly having to juggle their personal feelings.

JenniferQuail said...

Honestly, I find men to be better managers than women. They seem more comfortable making negative decisions (saying no to donors, reprimanding employees, making budget cuts, etc) without worrying about people's feelings, and at not taking things like board decisions as personal attacks. Also clearer at giving directions. A better question is are women in lower positions who exhibit these traits discouraged from them (ie where men are called decisive, are women, particularly by other women, labeled harsh?)

I find men both easier to work WITH and to work FOR. I don't feel like I'm constantly having to juggle their personal feelings.

(Also, Blogger's word verification? TERRIBLE.)

Anonymous said...

I'm a casual observer of studies like this, so am glad to hear that someone else tracks it too. And I randomly ran across this article ( at the same time as yours popped up in my rss feed, so, kismet?

I don't want to be Pollyanna about it, since there is quite a disparity, but the female directors that I can name off the top of my head (without a websearch) are: Connie Wolf (Contemporary Jewish Museum/Cantor Arts Center), Olga Viso (Walker Arts Center), Bonnie Pitman (former Dallas Art Museum), Kaywin Feldman (Minneapolis). There is a wide divide, but not as wide as 10 years ago.

AAMD (Association of Art Museum Directors) lists director job openings here:

And while I hate to argue on the internet, Jennifer's comment about "men to be better managers than women" was troubling. I've had just as poor male managers/co-workers as female ones. And wonderful female directors/co-workers. Difficulties were always individual personality clashes that should not be connected to gender. It's not a far leap from that judgement to preferencing gender when hiring. Which is, well, you know, illegal.

BS said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sara said...

Two quick things:

1) We don't make more noise about this as a field because it's not remotely particular to this field. 25% is actually pretty good within the context of the much larger issue.
Women are
3% of Fortune 500 CEOs
18% of non-profit CEOs*
20% of Congress
23% of college presidents*
5% of Nobel Prize winners
0% of US Presidents
*2009 data

2) Boards are mostly men, but that's far too simple. (Forgive me now as I make gross generalizations.) We've been somewhat socialized to believe that characteristically male leadership styles are "better" just because they're characteristically male. This is not unlike the tradition of some subjects being considered more or less worthy of great art (think Mary Cassatt or the pejorative "chick lit"). Women tend to be more innovative, collaborative, inclusive, and emotionally intelligent. Since these are all skills stressed by MBA programs and leadership speakers, are they only "worse" when associated with a woman?

Ben Theyre said...

I am a male and I love the challenges inherent in being a Director.
Jennifer might have a valid point.
Remember Boards usually have the responsibility of hiring the Director. Maybe their wisdom should be put into question.
On the other side, why does the museum curatorial and educational field attract so many females. Why don't more males hold these positions in museums?

Ben Theyre said...

Oh yes, one more observation. A male Director's mis management in the early 1990s drove our organization into the ground. We have been working for years trying to recover.

Linda said...

Interesting points everyone. I've worked for great men and women, and horrible men and women...although I now work for myself.

Although Jennifer's generalizations may be true for her own experience, I find the overall assumption troubling, to say the least. And I agree, Ben Theyre, that board decisions in the hiring process are worth talking about. What are they looking for and why do they think men can be better at it? And are boards statiscally dominated by men still?

Sara, thanks for the reminder about the stats for the rest of the world. Just a reminder that we need to do better all the way around. And Ben, your second comment, incompetence knows no gender!

Ron Potvin said...

Of course, the elephant in the room is sexism. It's overly simplistic to blame it on this alone, but it is a factor. My class this year is working on interpreting domesticity, and so we dove into a lot of women's history. As women have pushed boundaries, the attitudes of men change, but more slowly. We've (men) come a long way, baby, but we still have a ways to go. It's really not an individual thing; it's mostly a cultural thing. I think this is reflected in many boards, which tend to be older men (and women) who have not caught up to the cultural shift. Until boards are peopled by the contemporaries and peers of the demographics that make up the wider museum field, women, minorities, and people with unconventional points of view will remain in the lesser percentile.

Bruce Whitmarsh said...

One other thought to add to this interesting conversation, are women self selecting by not even applying for the directors job? Are 70% of applicants for the directors position men? This does lead to the question of why women would not be interested in applying but if there is some truth to this, solutions to the problem would have to include more than just saying to boards "hire more women".

Linda said...

Thanks everyone, for continuing to raise great questions. Bruce--interesting question about the percentage of applicants. I'd certainly suggest that the majority of students in graduate museum studies programs are women; but perhaps that's the wrong path to take being a director. And as it happens, I had breakfast this morning with someone I worked with who's just become a first time director of an arts group, and she reminded me of the importance of mentors. I've been lucky enough in my career to have some great ones, both male and female, and take my responsibility to young professionals, both men and women, as an important commitment.

Ron, I'm always so optimistic, but then forget that museums, almost by their preserving, conserving nature, are conservative institutions, so no surprise change is not happening so fast (like the Senate, for instance).

Jeanne B said...

This is a great discussion and one I've often thought about myself. As an Director of a Historical Society I would say that in my field I have worked with many women in non-director positions within the museum and if they are directors it is almost exclusively a small historical society. The vast majority of directors of art museums and science museums, as well as "big-time" museums that I've worked with have been men. I honestly feel that social stereotypes are largely responsible, combined with other social factors (marriage, raising children). Across most industries I see that high-powered leadership positions are held by men and that most people (men and women) express an emotional feeling about women with strong leadership. How many people didn't support Hilary Clinton because they don't "like" her? How many times are women described in the news based upon appearance or emotional attributes? These practices are ingrained in many of us without us even realizing that we are perpetuating them.

Sara said...

Linda, your mention of mentorship reminded me of this HBR article about mentors vs. sponsors, which has always stuck with me:

Linda said...

Sara and Jeanne--thanks for your comments. I'm just reading in a recent New Yorker, an article about the new, female, managing editor of the NYTimes...and definitely addresses that sort of likeability issue that women face and men almost never do. And Sara, thanks for the article. Do you think it means that formal mentor programs are less useful than informal ones? And it reinforced for me that one of the important things I seem to do on a fairly regular basis, is write letters of recommendation, in the most thoughtful way possible, for both men and women, in terms of really assessing their skills as a match to the job, fellowship, whatever. So I think that connecting skill really matters for mentors and mentees...but still, how can we do better?

Anne W. Ackerson said...

Last year, the Museum Association of New York and the New York State Council on the Arts Museum Program collaborated with Kimberli Gant, a graduate student and former staff member of the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, on a survey looking at the demographic make-ups of staff, board and volunteers in NYS museums and heritage organizations. Kim’s research resulted in a poster session presentation at the College Art Association’s annual conference last February – here is a storyboard of her presentation:

Bottom line: women dominate the NYS museum workforce, but men are in the majority on NYS museum boards of trustees. As with other types of diversity in an institution, the board can be a good indicator of how diverse that institution's staff leadership is.

We have known for a very long time that the director ranks of the nation's largest museums are filled mostly by men, and correspondingly, many of these boards are chaired by men. Kudos to the women who have broken through the glass ceiling!

Our research on next generation leadership in NYS' museums revealed that many young professionals, both male and female, see the director's job as both compelling and repelling -- long, pressurized hours that emphasize fundraising, shouldering difficult personnel issues at both the staff and board levels, and the ongoing frictions of turning staid institutions into relevant, current and exciting community centers. You can access all of our whitepapers at under Publications.

As all the commenters have said, these are complicated, even enormous, issues. But they will never be resolved until the field is willing to face them, call them out, and work cohesively on trying to solve them.

Anne Ackerson, Director
Museum Association of New York

Linda said...

Thanks Anne, for reminding me of the survey and work done by Kimberly and MANY. Great information--real numbers, going much further than my little anecdotal analysis. I wonder, as young professionals are compelled and repelled simultaneously by director's jobs, how that breaks out by gender? And of course, you're absolutely right, that nothing will change unless we call it out and work on it...what do you think next steps could be?

Megan Dickerson said...

This discussion reminds me of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's public comments about female leadership, particularly her well-circulated admonition to women to not "leave before you leave"— that is, that women should continue to seek and tackle new professional challenges, even as they plan eventual maternity leave and child-rearing. Her full TED talk is here:

I work at a children's museum, and, as previous commenters have said, the pendulum of gender disparities swings to women in my sub-field. In fact, 100% of my museum's executive leadership is female. However, if you look more closely, another subtle disparity emerges: only two members of my museum’s senior team parent children under the age of 18, as compared to middle management, where a recent "baby boom" has led to lots of cute cubicle photos of kids under the age of five. Most of these colleagues are women between the ages of 35 and 45 who match the national trend of delaying having children until their careers have been fully established. For mid-career museum professionals poised for promotion while simultaneously enjoying the challenges of first-time parenting, Sandberg's urging to "not leave before you leave” may take on even more meaning.

At my museum, this real-life connection has sparked new conversations about family and work balance. Full disclosure: I don’t have kids— yet— but am lucky to have two mentors (one female and one male) who will honestly talk about the challenges of being both a parent and a potent contributor to the museum field. And, of course, I also work at a children's museum, where we partner daily with parents, the half of our audience that balances challenging jobs and circumstances while trying to give their kids a fair shot at success. If we are to partner with these parents effectively, how can we practice what we preach? How can we, as a children’s museum mission-driven to explore family issues, contribute to the field by incubating museum leaders who understand how to balance profession and parenting? We know that women still do the majority of housework in the home, at least according to studies of male-female parenting households (see ). If the continued imbalance of female parenting responsibilities represents a major barrier to female directorship in any profession, how are we, in the museum field, looking critically at issues of work-family balance, both internally and even in our public programs?

I’m curious about other people’s experiences. Has anyone experienced either

A. a compelling exhibit or exhibit component on these types of family/parenting/gender imbalance issues or
B. a successful staff/human resources program that encourages family-work balance?

Sarah Griswold said...

I was the director of a small struggling house museum for about 5 years. I brought it back from the brink of disaster, and got lots of positive feedback from volunteers and one board member, but a male board member told me in passing one day that I was a 'terrible executive director', without telling me what criteria I was being judged by. It says a great deal about my state of mind, I suppose, that i took his comment more to heart than the supportive ones, and I believe that it undermined my effectiveness. I haven't decided whether it was worse to have been told such a thing in that fashion or to have given it more weight than other feedback I got.

Linda said...

Megan--so much to think about! Actually sounds like it would make a great conference session (or feel free to write a guest blog entry here) about that balance. And I'd love to know about museums that might be addressing this internally--can't think of any exhibits about it.

I was lucky enough to run a small museum when my daughter was small, and had a very supportive board president (male) which helped make it possible.

Pomperaug History--oh, I hate that those random negative remarks live with us much longer than the positive ones. That's one thing I've learned the longer I've been in the field--to let those go quicker!

Danville Historical Society said...

I found article to be very interesting (no 60s pun intended. I work as an archivist at the Danville Historical Society and, on our level found that our President deals on the level of the grad sweeping gesture (like having a portrait of Danville native Thaddeus Stevens unveiled at a ceremony attended by over 100 people with the portrait being presented to the state for installation in the state capital in January) and our director is a dynamic woman who has just enlisted the help of volunteers in getting the oral history of Danville. The presents a nice combination where neither on clashes. Mark Moore.

Tracy P said...

Hi there. This is an issue that's troubled me for years and is certainly just as relevant here in Australasia. There are no doubt many reasons, including embedded prejudices and lack of career pathways that contribute to this issue. However, I do often find myself advising female colleagues applying for jobs to 'talk themselves up' more, as I see a lot of downplayed achievements on their CVs. Even the language used can be hesitant (i.e, 'I helped with', when the actuality is 'I drove', or 'I managed'. I do feel that men and women have slightly different approaches to job application, interview, and negotiation processes. Speaking terribly generally, it seems to me that women can be hesitant to apply for a role if they have limited experience in some aspects of the j/d, or it is a stretch for them, whereas men seem more likely to throw their hat in the ring and give it a go. Those are my observations - I'd love to hear what others think.

Linda said...

Tracy P--thanks from your comment from way around the world (from my little perch)--and actually today, had a very similar conversation about how to mentor and encourage more women as they pursue director searches and even for ourselves, as consultants, about how we can also approach the process a bit differently--a great reminder and thanks for sharing it.

Michael O’Connell said...

I'm very happy to say that our current director falls into the minority — happy, no because she is a woman, but because of the ideas and experience she brings.

To address your point, while we are now a "cultural institution" of the local state university, two of our previous three directors were also women. The other two major museums in our city also have female directors.

I work in the design field and I see that it, too is dominated by men at the top but that, too is changing. I think that as this generation passes the torch we will be much less inclined to sexism and racism.

Anonymous said...

You might be interested to know that women account for 74% of our Facebook traffic. --The Art Museum Partnership