Gender Gap in Museum Leadership

We're on a roll this week. Today's New York Times' article reports a study by the Association of Art Museum Directors, prompted by one of its members, Lisa Phillips, director of the New Museum in New York that found . . . a gender gap (!) at the top of the museum world.  It turns out that woman hold almost half of the directorships at small and medium sized museums, but only  24% of the top jobs at major museums are held by women, and their compensation is 29% lower than their male counterparts.

"There is a difference if a woman is running one of these big museums,” said Elizabeth Easton, director of the Center for Curatorial Leadership, a training program in New York that has helped place nine women in directorships, but none at the country’s most influential museums. “Those directors are the most loud and authoritative voices. It sets the tone."

So the lack of women in these jobs is not only an issue for an individual museum, it means that women's voices and perspectives are less likely to influence what art is displayed, what shows are promoted and which artists' work is purchased, not to mention how a particular institution (which may have one museum, or be a global enterprise) is managed, and the face it displays to its community.

Ms. Phillips speculated that part of the cause may be that women may be choosing not to take these high level, high pressure jobs. That echoes a thread that has been running through recent discussions about women leaders in business and other realms.  Ginni Rometty, the CEO of IBM talked about taking risks, at the Fortune Power Women's Summit in 2011:

“Really early, early in my career, I can remember being offered a big job,” she said. “Right away I said, ‘You know what? I’m not ready for this job.’”

That night “as I’m telling my husband about this, he just looked at me and he said, ‘Do you think a man would have ever answered that question that way?’” she said. “What that taught me was you have to be very confident even though you’re so self-critical inside. Growth and comfort do not coexist.”

I was at my firm's (first) women's partners full-day retreat last fall, and the speaker challenged us to reach for leadership positions - I was astonished that some of my partners did seem to be hanging back, for what may be legitimate reasons, but her point was to do it anyway, otherwise nothing changes, and, heck, we can probably handle it.

The New York Times articles ends with this:

But Ms. Phillips, looking across the whole field, now has her doubts about whether women should reject major leadership positions as they open up. “When you see the absence of women,” she said, “it makes you wonder whether it’s something that we really need to do, regardless of whether we want to do it.” 

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