The queues for the women’s loos at the Museums Association conference earlier this month often trailed out of the door. At times it reminded me of going to Cinderella at the Birmingham Royal Ballet, where I found it impossible to go to the loo and have time for an ice cream in the interval, but my husband could take our young daughters into the gents’ without fear of embarrassment because he was one of only a handful of men in the entire audience.
Is the gender profile of the museums workforce equally distorted?
Last week the Collections Trust announced a new programme of collections management traineeships, organised in partnership with Arts Council England. All twenty trainees are women. That’s not necessarily a criticism of the Collections Trust – I’m sure the appointments were made on merit and this lack of diversity reflects the profile of the applicants. It has long been the case that women far outnumber men on museum studies courses, and in entry level jobs, a phenomenon my colleague Maurice Davies explored in his 2007 report, Tomorrow People. Nevertheless, with gender profiles like this emerging, organisers of training schemes in the museum sector are going to have to start thinking seriously about positive action on gender.
Why does it matter? Firstly, of course, there is now a wide consensus that a monocultural museum profession cannot serve diverse audiences well (the Arts Council’s so-called ‘Creative Case’ for diversity). That has to extend to gender. The historic and continuing disadvantages faced by women do not make an absence of men somehow OK.
Secondly, there is an argument from self-interest, with extensive research suggesting that in the longer term the ‘feminisation’ of a profession or sector is bad for everyone who works in it. Society still often links status to gender, so work is seen to matter more if men do it.
So much for entry level, what’s it like at senior level? This week, the MA announced the appointment of Sharon Heal, pointing out that she was its first female director. (In fact, other women have held leadership positions at the MA – the list of female past presidents goes back to Mary Woodall in 1962 and Brenda Capstick ran the MA as its most senior member of staff from 1965 to 1983, although then the title of the top job was ‘secretary’, rather than director.) Does Sharon’s appointment mirror the wider sector?
Not necessarily; a report in 2013, based on a sample of 50 museums, found that only 28% of national and regional museum directors were female. Plenty of regional museums are run by women, but the nationals are still dominated by men, often privately educated.
At board level the picture is different. Regional museums’ boards tend to be male-dominated whereas boards of English national museums are more equal, thanks to the efforts of DCMS which has set a target for a 50:50 gender split. (Unusually in its recent history, the MA’s two top board roles are both currently held by men.)
Lots of women in the workforce evidently doesn’t translate to women at the top. In primary teaching, there is evidence that men who buck the trend and join the sector are promoted more quickly than women. Will that hold true in museums? What we need is more women at the very top, more men at entry level, and more equality everywhere.