Women in Power: Addressing the Gender Balance in Museums

Gender Balance, or the lack thereof, is a topic of fervent discussion throughout the global museum world. It is a topic that is constantly re-addressed, re-hashed and re-visited on numerous occasions. This is a topic that I have myself lately been thinking about after reading this article in The Washington Post entitled, ‘The Directors’. The article discusses the careers  of eight museum directors in Washington D.C. The women talk about their experiences of working in museums in the less gender balanced times of the 1960s through to the 1980s.


(c) The Washington Post, 2014.

One  director, Johnetta Betsch Cole, Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, had to pass barriers that included racial segregation and chauvinistic comments from male colleagues to achieve her current role. Another director, Elizabeth Broun, Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery, remembers that in the 1980s she was passed over for promotion for a man who ‘had a family to support […] even though I was the better qualified candidate.’ Thankfully, this sort of backward thinking is hopefully long gone in the museum world of 2015 and women like Elizabeth Broun have went onto achieve astronomical accomplishments in the museum world. By watching this video of the museum directors you will be able to garner the meaning behind ‘astronomical accomplishments’.

The career development of the above mentioned women are truly an inspiration for younger female museum professionals, myself included. Although, in the interim of young women becoming museum directors (because let’s face it; being a museum director is one the ultimate goals of museum professionals!) what can we, the museum directors of the future, actually do to lead? There are numerous strategies, self-help books and legislative procedures that discuss how to be an ‘effective leader’ or an ‘inspiring boss’. However, most of this advice wouldn’t cut it in the museum world, as this advice is normally aimed at businesses and other like minded companies.

So how are we to effectively lead and inspire a gender balance in the museums of the future? One point of redress would be to monitor ‘gender representation across the cultural sector’ as stated in a Guardian article from 2014.1  In this article, Yasmin Khan mentions that Elisabeth Møller Jensen (Director of the Danish Center for Information on Gender, Equality and Diversity) states that at a recent conference the Danish museum sector was addressing the question of gender balance by monitoring gender representation in the cultural sector. It is worthwhile to note that Denmark is one of only a handful of countries in the world that has a dedicated museum devoted to Danish women’s history. Is it then the answer to devote an entire museum to a country’s female history and monitoring gender inclusivity in cultural institutions the answer to the gender balance problem? This is easier said than done, especially in the view of the economic down turn and constant slashing of culture budgets in the U.K. It is safe to say that a women’s museum devoted to British history would partially solve the problem, however this may be a future pipeline dream.2

If the barrier to gender inclusivity in the museum workforce and museum displays is a monetary problem, what then can be done to remedy this problem on a tight budget? The answer could possibly lie in informal networks of women mentors, conferences and women encouraging other women to take on leadership roles in museums. One such informal network of women is #MuseWomen, a collective of women in museum technology roles who meet to mentor each other across the U.S. Another network, is the Women Leaders in Museums Network based in the U.K. This collective of women meet conferences and other museum events at a regular basis to encourage and mentor other like minded women. However, finding any official information or point of contact about the Women Leaders in Museums Network has not been fruitful. It is not useful for women to hide helping hands from other women; we must be open and transparent to help fellow female museum professionals and redress gender balance.

Women in powerful roles within museums is, as can be seen above, a problematic dilemma at the best of times. From a gender in-balance at the level of Curator’s to Head of Collections to a lack of funding for women specialist networks and museums, this is a problem that is not going to go away overnight. Whilst it is encouraging to read articles, such as the article in The Washington Post, to inspire young female museum professionals, we need to have more women at a more ‘local’ level. Interviews with female curator’s in local museums, photo’s of textile conservators at the V&A, videos of women in important stakeholder meetings at museums etc. need to become more visible in museum literature. However, to do this we must first reach out to women who have only begun their museum careers or are at the half-way point. If we don’t we are loosing the inspirational voices for the female museum directors of the future.

1.Yasmin Khan, ‘Are museums a man or woman’s world?’, (London; Guardian, 2014) <http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2013/may/22/museums-man-or-womans-world>

2. There is a dedicated website to Irish female history: Women’s Museum of Ireland. 

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