19 Jan

Same difference?

Helen Wilkinson

DCMS has announced that last year 48% of new public appointments to the boards of organisations it funds were women. This narrowly misses its 50% target, but it shows what can be done if you try.

I’d like to live in a world where positive action wasn’t necessary and everyone had equal opportunities and was promoted on merit. Until we live in that world, I think positive action is sometimes needed, and I welcome what DCMS is trying to achieve.

It sends a message to the many regional museums whose boards are woefully male dominated. (The recent ACE review of evidence on equality and diversity across the cultural sector workforce suggested that women were especially poorly represented at board level within the Major Partner Museums, compared to other parts of the cultural sector.)

But equal representation – of women, of black, Asian and minority-ethnic people, of disabled people – is only the beginning. Diversity of boards or workplaces isn’t just about who has a seat at the table. It’s also about how those people are treated once they’re there, and whether they are able to have an effective voice and to make a positive difference.

The Museum Consultancy undertook a piece of work for ACE last year on workforce and board diversity. Some of our interviewees who had been involved in programmes to diversify boards observed that sometimes people say they want diversity, but actually they just want things to stay the same. Organisations feel they’ve met an obligation and ticked a diversity box by appointing a trustee who looks different because of their race, age, gender or disability, but don’t give them the space to be different.

Boards that want to change their culture, not just their profile, have to respect and listen to the views of people who think differently. They may also have to offer support to people with expertise from another field who lack knowledge of the sector, so that they can become informed enough to offer helpful insight. It’s too easy to let certain kinds of knowledge, or even certain forms of language, become a shibboleth and place less value on the contribution of someone who doesn’t have them.

So let’s celebrate the 48%, but challenge all museums to demonstrate that they are open, thoughtful and respectful towards difference in the workplace and the board room – not just in their demographics and in their structures, but in the way that they behave.