Why Don’t More Men Work In Museums?

The 20th of January was #MuseumSelfie day, a day I don’t particularly relish nor begrudge, and overall probably a good thing to see museum professionals, who are the majority taking part, let their hair down, the unwary letting their hair down a bit too much but overall no harm done. Being the hilarious individual I am I rather glibly and a smidgen snarkily tweeted:

Why has my feed exploded with images of white women? Ah, I see why.

Ha ha. This led to a perfectly amicable Twitter exchange with two of my favourite geologists about diversity in culture, heritage and museums which I won which even through the difficult short format was clear there were a lot of different opinions and speculations particularly about gender diversity of museum professionals. This planted a bee in my bonnet, so I thought I’d put some thoughts here because writing a blog solves world problems.

Anecdata 

From my experience working in museums, working with museums and colleagues across the museum sector, attending museums conferences, teaching, training and being trained it was hard not to notice that the people who work in museums are mostly white women. Being a sensitive subject, it’s something I only discussed with a few close colleagues at first but at museum conferences, museum studies teaching sessions, museum conservation teaching sessions and all staff meetings it was a #womanlywhiteout. Even when recruiting for new posts, which was anonymous at UCL, when the list of candidates for interview was flipped over, it was a surprise if there was a single man out of six and notably rare when it was more than one. The imbalance is at the application stage which got me thinking about why men weren’t applying.

More than this, however, is that diversity in the museum sector has always been a hot topic as long as I’ve been in the sector but the discussion was always around every minority but the gender one. An article titled ‘The Gender Agenda’ appeared in the Museums Journal but was about the difficulties of women having children and working, a good article but perhaps not ideally headlined. Even at the most recent Museums Association Conference, in the session about diversity, through some not-so-subtle tweeting about the gender issue, questions in the discussion session about the gender disparity were met with (admittedly hastily thought over) responses: “Maybe men just don’t want to work in museums” and “I’m not interested in that diversity issue” which is exactly the kind of ignorant at best, offensive at worst, gender-swapped responses to the glass ceiling women face in business (maybe women just don’t want to be CEOs?).

When the spotlight is on gender diversity in museums, it tends to focus on the gender diversity at the top, with more men at the directorate level, which whilst an issue itself, is doubly bad if men, making up the minority of the workforce as whole, are being favourably appointed at the highest level.

Delicately asking colleagues about why they thought men didn’t go for museum jobs, responses were mixed and taken out of context potentially insulting (to all genders): museum work isn’t seen as proper work; men are more motivated to earn more; men have to earn more as the breadwinners so either don’t think about the museum sector or finance their partners who do; it doesn’t matter, can’t women have one industry they dominate?; museum work is all about emotions and aesthetics which don’t appeal to men; conservation is seen as ‘soft’ or feminine work.  It’s a dilemma for all aspects of diversity as colleague Sara Wajid expressed, paraphrased here, it’s a hard sell on paper; work for free to get your foot in the door; earn less than equally qualified professionals; suffer a poor work life balance; rent for life; be ready to move around the country and even then you need to get lucky to get a contract job. Perhaps minorities have the right idea.

Actual Data

Actual data on the gender diversity imbalance is hard to find which makes me nervous posting this. Many museums publish their policies but not their numbers. As I mentioned above, museum directors are often the focus; 2014 Association of Art Museum Directors and 2014 Guardian coverage or museums are bundled in with the creative and cultural sectors which are mostly male but skewed by tech. The most recent summary from Arts Council England in September 2015 has the overall percentage as 60% women, 40% men working in Arts Council Major Partner Museums with women making up 68% of specialists, 57% of managers and 57% ‘other’ and makes the useful comparison to the imbalance in primary teachers for reference. The below quote from that report is a rare instance that I’ve seen of stating the issue.

At the same time, the under-representation of men in non-senior management roles within the museum workforce is a problem that needs to be addressed before it becomes so significant as to deter other men from entering the sector.

Of course, data isn’t everything, even with a majority of women, are museums still a man’s world? Not sure if I agree but interesting nonetheless.

Solutions

So what are the solutions? I don’t have the answer but perhaps the better pondered diversity problems offer some clues, although of course the problem is different and the solution might be too.

Does content created by women disinterest or put men off? Are museum spaces ‘not for men’? This excellent read by David Osa Amadasun, “Black people don’t go to galleries” – The reproduction of taste and cultural value reflects on how art museums don’t reflect all cultures and that this can put people off without them even taking a step inside a museum.

Is economic background the key? Another excellent read here from Emily Dawson, relevant to science museums which are often overlooked in diversity studies “Not Designed for Us”: How Science Museums and Science Centers Socially Exclude Low-Income, Minority Ethnic Groups. Don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest that men are underprivileged as a group but the social pressure for men to be the bread winner in a relationship is well, if not controversially documented so perhaps museums just aren’t a viable option to most.

Related to above, perhaps education is the key? The well worn, Museum Studies degree or not debate always comes up in discussions of diversity but in my experience, the frequency of a museum studies degree as a requirement is over reported and applicants to these degree programmes are already white women dominated. Although these degrees are often humanities oriented which might be a factor.

Is this a UK issue? I’m on shakier ground here but anecdotally from International conferences and museum visits, there definitely seems to be differences between European and North American workforces, with North American workforces (within natural history) tending to be older and more male than the profile of European museums.

Either way, this is something I’m going to continue to think about and plug away at as a recruiter, manager and as a human being. Lastly, I’d also like to state that although there is gender disparity within the sector it isn’t the only problem nor is more or less important than others. Also, there isn’t a broad brush solution to a fine grained problem. Without the data, I’d be willing the bet that education and conservation professionals are likely to be women but then workshop technicians and museum scientists will tend to be more male dominated.

What are your thoughts on this issue? What can we DO about it? Drop your thoughts in the comments.

UPDATE 21/01/2016: Edited a few garble sentences and added author names.

UPDATE 21/01/2016: I got pointed in the direction of this interesting report The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey with insight into race, ethnicity and gender diversity across museums, roles and ages. Well worth a look.

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5 thoughts on “Why Don’t More Men Work In Museums?

  1. Good article, thanks Mark. I was at the same diversity session at the MA Conference and I thought the responses to the question about getting more men into the sector were very interesting too. The panel members were discussing different ethnic groups, disabled people or those with different social / economic backgrounds, and how under represented they are within the museum world (which they are), but when asked about the lack of men in the sector none answered regarding men from these backgrounds. Their answers – that it wasn’t an issue – seemed to assume that the question was about white, middle class and able bodied men, which it wasn’t. As you say it was off the cuff, and they were sitting on a stage while a room full of people watched and I’m sure their answers would have been different given time, but I think that’s just evidence that it is an issue. As John Orna-Ornstein said later in the conference, diversity is important whatever group you are talking about.

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  2. I think it also depends on what the subject specialism is. There are more female Botany curators than male ones, and there are more male Entomology curators than female ones (though you may laugh at me about the latter statement because of where you work, but it’s true. I’ve been mistaken for Erica so many times at certain conferences because I’ve been the only woman in the room!)

    I’ve often wondered why this was? It’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all answer. Overall, though I do agree that in general the museum sector is indeed dominated by white women, at least in terms of gender balance.

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  3. As far as leadership of museums is concerned men still out-number women. Of my fellow directors on National Museum Directors Council 31 are men, 20 are women.

    I’m also curious as to the family life’ statistics of those directors. How many are parents of young children, in a relationship, divorced etc. Many people often struggle to manage family life with the demands of leading large organisations, e.g. unsocial hours, responding to the whims of trustees and politicians who have time on their hands. From a personal perspective, I don’t find it problematic but then I run a medium sized regional organisation. For a London National I’m sure its a different picture

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  4. “Does content created by women disinterest or put men off?”

    More anecdata for you… It’s striking working in science and technology museums that exhibition content is moving away from old styles of display that show off almost encyclopaedic arrays of steam engines / vintage radios / bits of brass and glass, towards cultural and social histories that showcase a variety of kinds of stories and communities. While this is undoubtedly welcoming to a wide range of new audiences, I’ve also encountered (mostly) men who feel alienated because their hobby activity – perhaps being a radio enthusiast, or a reviver of 1950s computers – is being sidelined. There is no doubt in my mind that some of these groups look at the way museum display is changing and think that things are being overly feminised. This must act as a deterrent to some people, but whether it also excludes younger generations I don’t know.

    I’ve never given much thought to whether something similar is happening outside of specialist science and technology museums, but I’d be interested to hear what curators in other kinds of museums thought.

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  5. We wanted to share that our take on this subject in context of the larger gender equity and museums conversation can be found here: http://incluseum.com/2016/02/08/gender-equity-and-museums/

    An excerpt: “Are traditional gender roles and spaces actually being reinforced as museums adopt an increasing number of relatively lower paid positions with job duties traditionally perceived as “women’s work”? Does this, the perceived feminized nature of museum work, dissuade men from desiring to pursue museums as a career? Are men of color, like women, finding it harder to enter the field due to double standards that they hold more advanced degrees in order to compete with white men in hiring and salary?”

    We would like to hear what you think!

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