Same storm, different ships – American Alliance of Museums

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Several staff members of the Alice Paul Institute in front of the organization’s headquarters at Mt. Laurel, New Jersey.

Sometimes as a result of disruptive events. the world acts like a rubber band, returning to its original form. Other times, disruptions have a lasting impact, resetting our boundaries, reshaping our practice. It will take several years to assess which changes driven by the COVID-19 pandemic are fading and entrenched in our future. Today on the blog, Executive Director Allison Titman tells us how she is rethinking HR practices at the Alice Paul Institute, using lessons learned from COVID to make the nonprofit workplace more equitable and inclusive.
Elizabeth Merritt, Vice President, Strategic Foresight and Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums, American Alliance of Museums


At the start of the pandemic, I heard someone (probably at a Zoom meeting) say, “We’re all in the same storm but we’re not in the same boat.” I found it a useful reminder that while we were all subjected to the same public health crisis, we did not experience it the same way. Factors such as race, ethnicity, employment status and stability, financial status, marital status, parental status, age, health history and many others have made a difference. a dramatic difference depending on whether someone has seen their life crumble around them, experienced minor hardships, or fallen somewhere on the broad spectrum in between. This inequality will not dissipate as the pandemic subsides, so how can we take equity into consideration as we shape the museum workplaces and staffing structures of the future?

The ‘different boats’ metaphor has a special resonance for me because I work in an organization – the Alice Paul Institute (API) – whose mission is focused on the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of girls. so that they see themselves as leaders. Having a background in women’s history, I know how gender and other intersecting social factors cause people to be unequal.

I have been at API since January and in the museum field for over 15 years. In my work in and with small museums, large institutions and museum associations, I have personally encountered many issues in our field, including low wages, lack of adequate benefits and sexism. I am aware that I am still one of the lucky ones – my privilege of white protected me from the racial and ethnic discrimination that others face, I got a stable job in positions of progressive responsibility and I am not struggling with crushing student loan debt. . As I have taken on leadership roles, both in employment and on boards, I have felt a growing sense of responsibility to speak out against inequalities in museum work and to take concrete measures to change them.

When I started to analyze API operations, I saw an opportunity to use our external mission around gender equality as a common thread for our internal human resources management. Thanks to the enthusiasm and support given to the centenary of women’s suffrage commemorations, the API team has grown from three to nine in less than three years. I have found, however, that our human resources policies and practices have not always kept pace with this rapid growth. Titles and salary scales were not standardized, salaries were not necessarily compared to those of other local nonprofits, and the benefits package had not kept pace with current standards. Given that the workforce is currently all-female, it seems even more essential to put in place a structure that counteracts rather than perpetuates negative trends affecting women in the workplace.

During the pandemic, researchers found a “pattern of women dropping out to care for children while men continued to work.” In the United States, 1.8 million fewer women were employed in May 2021 compared to the previous peak in February 2020, the latest measurement before most U.S. offices closed. (Summary quoted from Bloomberg News.) This data is even more depressing in light of the evidence that even before the pandemic, women struggled to juggle personal and work commitments and prone to a persistent gender pay gap which is exacerbated by race and the present. even at the highest levels of nonprofit leadership.

Not too long ago, someone posted a question on AAM’s Museum Junction mailing list for museum CEOs, asking what percentage of work would continue to be remote after the pandemic is over. Granted, the response count was low and the messages short, but the number of respondents stating that they intended to 100% return to work on site made me fear that we were leaving an opportunity to review and to rethink our working practices to improve the quality of employees. of life is beyond us. As museum leaders, I think it is essential that we remember that not everyone is still in the same boat and that we seize this chance to break out of old patterns that perpetuated inequalities.

I don’t say this lightly, because I know that the job of running a museum is both difficult and difficult to prioritize when so many things demand our attention. My strategy is to include a review of how to pursue our goal of gender equality in every management task. Right now that means using our budget process to review our pay scale and benefit offerings. We are also in the process of setting up a new pension plan which allows for twinning with the employer; our old plan was only put in place for employees to contribute. My list of things to do for the future includes:

  • Create a defined staffing structure with associated uniform salary scales, and share this structure in our employee handbook.
  • Further revise the manual to incorporate telecommuting and flexible hours into our normal practices. I have had one-on-one conversations with each employee to determine how and where they can carry out their job responsibilities and while meeting other demands of their time and energy, but I think it is important to formalize this flexibility
  • Use vacancies as opportunities to increase staff diversity

Obviously, some of these initiatives have budgetary implications. The API is fortunate to have received increased financial support that will support those planned in the short term. Others will require additional conversations between the board and myself about our fundraising priorities and needs, but we all agree on the need to embed our external value of gender equality into our internal practices.

It is not an easy job, but it is essential whether you view it from a moral or a business perspective. I firmly believe that museums can change the world; do it for our staff and for ourselves and our visitors.

Allison Titman is the Executive Director of the Alice Paul Institute, which honors Alice Paul’s legacy of work for gender equality through education and leadership development, and President Emeritus of the Small Museum Association.

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