Other Stuff

Sunday Post – Women in Museums

I’ve promised you a post about Marvel movie women, and it’s coming! But first, an aside in regard to women not from comic books: Women in my chosen nonprofit area, the museum field.

One of my classes this semester is about museum administration. It sounds boring, it’s not, but either way bear with me for a moment! I’d like to talk about the large number of women working in museums. Feel free to skim the numbers, major points are in bold.

Leadership Matters coverThere are a surprising number of books about museum administration, and we’re churning through a pile of them. The first we’ve finished entirely is Leadership Matters by Ackerson and Baldwin. I’d like to draw your attention to a study cited in the introduction, the American Alliance of Museums’ 2012 National Comparative Museum Salary Study, which covered four of the AAM’s six regions. The survey showed that women largely outnumber men in full-time museum positions, and somewhat outnumber them in CEO and VP positions. Two-thirds of museum professionals in the sample were women.

However, 82% of the museums surveyed had operating budgets under $3 million. Why is that significant? The book goes on to quote a passage from this 2013 article by Laura Otten:

… there is an inverse relationship between the percentages of women in CEO positions at these nonprofits the larger the organizational budget gets.  (Only 21% of women in nonprofits with budgets over $25 million are women.)  In organizations with budgets between $1 million and $7 million, the majority (52%) of the CEOs are women; and in those organizations with budgets under $1 million, 64% of the CEOs are women.

There are waaaay more women in small, local museums. The bigger and more professionalized the museum, the fewer female paid staff and CEOs.

Equal Pay Day 2012
Equal Pay Day 2012

But wait, there’s more. Back to the AAM salary survey… Women in the field make about $0.78 to a man’s dollar, roughly the same as the last national average I saw. Beyond just women’s pay, though, the book says according to (uncited) “researchers and pundits” the predominance of women in the field is probably why the field is underfunded and disrespected.

The rest of the book consists of interviews with prominent or efficacious museum-field leaders. One director, Melissa Chiu, notes that many baby-boomer senior officers are now leaving the field, and their places are being taken by higher percentages of women, presumably leveling those numbers out somewhat. But to her, this is a subtle indication that “job value is diminished” in the museum field, that women are only starting to hold these positions because those titles are seen as less valuable than before. 

Two separate allegations. One, that the museum field is neglected because it’s mostly women. Two, that the museum field has declined in respect, and because of that, women can get high-level jobs more easily than before.

Whether either of these statements is really true, I don’t know, but they say something about how women are seen. How they’re condescended to and boxed in by the ever-present cultural belief that women’s work is less valuable.

I don’t have a lot of information yet, just a few references in a book and an article, but this situation bears watching. I am irritated.

8 thoughts on “Sunday Post – Women in Museums

  1. Seems the age old question, which came first? The abundance of women in the field or the low budgets/low esteem for the position? Sigh… this is interesting and depressing all at the same time.


  2. I can certainly agree that museum work seems to be primarily handled by women these days: at the museum where I volunteer, all the staff *and* all the volunteers are women. (There was one male staffer for a while, but he suddenly quit last year after having had the job maybe a year, possibly less. They actually seem to go through staff surprisingly quickly, and yet they never offer *me* a job…sigh….) It’s a very small museum, though, definitely well under that $3 million mark on annual budget. (I’m not sure what the annual budget is on normal years, but I’d be greatly surprised if it exceeded $100,000. If it even approaches that, for that matter. Probably doesn’t even come close. This isn’t a normal year–the museum finally was able to fund-raise enough to build a new wing–so this year the budget is significantly higher…but still nowhere near $3 million.)

    The thing that strikes me about those allegations regarding the female dominance being an indication of how the “job value has diminished”…that all reminds me of stuff I was reading in my research for an oral history paper on women in the medical profession that I wrote last semester. Many of my sources talked about the increase in women in medicine in the 1980s being indicative of how men in the 1980s were no longer interested in being doctors, because the popular trend at the time was to go the power-exec route. The sources didn’t seem able to come to a consensus about whether that meant the medical profession had lost its value before women began to represent a stronger percentage, or *because* there were more women in the profession. Though I should note that most of these were sources from the 1990s and very early 2000s. More recent sources offered proof that the number of women in medicine hadn’t really changed that much in the 1980s, and the respect accorded the profession hadn’t changed, either. So it could be that that opinion is not actually accurate, merely applying assumptions from past decades and other settings that aren’t really valid here. I don’t know if that’s the case, but I hope so. (All I can say for sure is that the director of the museum where I volunteer is easily able to scare the crap out of the male employees of other museums, but I’m not sure if that proves anything other than that she can be a real bear when she’s angry. It was that guy’s fault for trespassing on our construction site, though!)


    1. Yes, I wondered the same thing — do women have the opportunities because the profession has been devalued, is the profession devalued because of all the women, or is all of this just a perception and not the reality? Pretty much every field everywhere entertains itself by bemoaning its pay rates. I’m inclined to think the presence of women is a scapegoat in that regard, and the makings of an excuse not to hire women in those higher-level paid positions.


  3. That is a really interesting study, though when I first clicked on the link, I thought “Women in Museums” was going to be a trope post, like “Women in Refrigerators”…. maybe it is, but in real life. “Women in the Discount Aisle”? 😛

    Not to make light of it, but I would be interested in hearing more about your thoughts on it as your understanding grows.



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