On September 11, 2018, the Board of Directors of the Mountain-Plains Museums Association unanimously voted to require that any jobs or paid internships posted to the MPMA Job Bank would include the level of compensation– whether salary or hourly rate. The MPMA’s move was in line with a move by a number of museum associations to end salary cloaking or the habit of hiding compensation levels rather than being transparent about them at the start of the hiring process.
In this episode, we’re joined by Will Stoutamire and Lauren Hunley (both on the Board of the MPMA), and Michelle Epps, President of the National Emerging Museum Professionals Network, for a discussion about salary transparency in the museum field–what it is, why it matters, and why your institution should be disclosing salaries early and often.
A native of Tallahassee, Florida, Will Stoutamire received his PhD in History (with an emphasis in Public History) from Arizona State University in 2013. He currently serves as the director of the on-campus history museum at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, the G.W. Frank Museum of History and Culture, and as a graduate lecturer in the UNK Department of History. Dr. Stoutamire has previously worked on projects for the Museum of Florida History, the ASU Museum of Anthropology, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and the National Park Service.
Lauren Hunley has spent over fifteen years in the museum field. Earning her Master of Arts in Learning & Visitor Services in Museums and Galleries through Leicester University in England, she’s worked for both small museums and national museum service organizations. She is the author of 101 Museum Programs on a Shoestring Budget and has presented at numerous museum conferences. She is currently the Community Historian at the Western Heritage Center in Billings, Montana, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Mountain-Plains Museums Association.
Michelle Epps serves as the President of the National Emerging Museum Professionals Network. She has been involved with NEMPN since 2011 and has served as President since 2015. Epps currently works as the Community Engagement Coordinator at SPACES in Cleveland, Ohio and is the interim Museum Educator at the Lakewood Historical Society. Much of her professional work involves creating access to the arts for vulnerable individuals such as incarcerated youth, LGBT seniors, kids living in public housing, and homeless women and children. She has a Masters in History with a Specialization in Museum Studies and a Certificate in Nonprofit Business Management from Case Western Reserve University. Epps also serves on the advisory committee for Kent State University’s MuseLab and the Education and Museum Outreach Advisory Council for the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.
Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums.
Graphic Design of the Museopunks logo is by Selena Robleto.
Suse Anderson: G’day and welcome to Museopunks: The Podcast for the Progressive Museum. My name is Suse Anderson and I will be your host today as we dive into progressive museum practice in all its forms.
This May will mark five years since I first moved to America to work at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The time has gone by impossibly quickly and there have been lots of changes in my life and in the world at large. The museum sector in America seems different from when I arrived half a decade ago too. The conversations seem harder. One of those conversations is around the conditions of working in this sector, which expects so much of its people and sometimes with little reward.
One of the early challenges that moving to the US brought was that it came with my first major salary negotiation. Many of the jobs that I had worked in Australia had been clear and upfront about salary expectations and salary ranges are quite different between the two countries, so trying to make sense of my value in the sector here and figuring out what an appropriate range for the job was going to be was pretty difficult. I aimed high but that was as much from naivety as a belief in my self-worth and what I should be paid. These days, I still struggle when students ask me what the correct or appropriate salary range for various jobs in the sector are and this is a real challenge for our sector for a number of reasons, as you will hear in today’s episode.
We’re going to investigate salary cloaking and salary transparency and its impact on our sector and on our emerging museum professionals. Incidentally, this was the only episode I’ve ever struggled to find guests for and have in fact have been turned down for. In this case, by a museum HR manager who wasn’t willing to speak about this topic on the record. Hiring practices are tricky but until we can speak about them openly, it’s going to be difficult for us to create more equitable institutions. I’m grateful to my guests today, who were willing to jump into this discussion.
A native of Tallahassee, Florida, Will Stoutamire received his Ph.D. in history with an emphasis in public history from Arizona State University in 2013. He currently serves as the director of the on-campus history museum at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, the G.W. Frank Museum of History and Culture and as a graduate lecturer in the UNK department of history. Dr. Stoutamire has previously worked on projects for the Museum of Florida History, the ASU Museum of Anthropology, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and the National Park Service.
Lauren Hunley has spent over 15 years in the museum field, earning her master of arts in learning and visitor services in museums and galleries through Leicester University in England. She’s worked for both small museums and national museum service organizations. She’s the author of 101 Museum Programs on a Shoestring Budget and has presented at numerous museum conferences. She’s currently the community historian at the Western Heritage Center in Billings, Montana and serves on the board of directors for the Mountain-Plains Museums Association. Lauren, Will, welcome to Museopunks.
Lauren Hunley: Thank you.
Will Stoutamire: Thanks for having us.
Suse: It’s so great to have you both here. You both are on the board of directors of the Mountain-Plains Museums Association and on September 11, 2018, the board unanimously voted to require that any jobs or paid internships posted to the MPMA job bank would include the level of compensation. Now that could be annual salary or hourly wage range and you also voted that unpaid internships must include that fact in the posting and all changes became effective on October 1, 2018. I wonder, Will, maybe you can start us off. Why did the association make these changes?
Will: Well so this began, of course, well before September 11th in a series of conversations that Lauren and myself and other members of the MPMA board had regarding some of the workplace equity issues that are a hot debate in our field right now, not just within the MPMA region but nationally and internationally and the desire amongst those of us on the board who were discussing this was to see what the regional organization that we were a part of could do to present possible solutions to some of the workplace equity issues that we see.
And so this actually began about eight months before that vote in the board meeting in September when we formed the Workplace Sustainability Committee, which Lauren and I are both members of, and began surveying our members and talking with them in more informal and formal ways in conference sessions about what issues were relevant to them, what workplace sustainability issues they saw in their daily lives and what we, as a committee and as a branch of the larger advisory board, could do to help them deal with those issues and out of those conversations, we found, not really much to our surprise I think, that salary range listings and salary cloaking was a big issue for a huge proportion of our membership and something they wanted us to tackle.
Suse: Why do you think that this issue of salary cloaking was one of the priority issues? You said that the Workplace Sustainability Council actually was speaking with members to get a sense of the range of issues. Why do you think this one stood out so much and was sort of the first one … or was it the first one you tackled?
Will: I think it was. First off, it was the first issue we tackled. We did a membership survey over the summer of that year as part of a larger MPMA membership survey. We included some questions regarding these issues and asked our members to prioritize what issues were of greatest or least concern to them. We gave them about seven different options, among which was listing salaries or at least a salary range on the job bank and over 40% of people said that that was their highest priority, so it was the one we decided to tackle first.
It’s hard to say why that issue stands about amongst all of the others, maybe because it’s something that affects pretty much everyone equally in this field, especially when they’re an emerging professional or a mid-career professional looking to make a move into another organization. I think many of us have personally or had colleagues go out onto the job market and seen the kind of difficulties that arise from applying for positions that are unclear as to what the compensation will be.
Suse: Yeah, that’s really interesting and great and in fact, we’re going to talk a little bit about what the implications are of salary cloaking for the sector but just going back to the board discussion, you said it took about eight months and I assume some of that eight months was your research and was that work that you were doing. What were the other factors in the discussion? Did you get any pushback from people in the sector who were concerned about the salary transparency and what that might do for the sector? Lauren, maybe you can tackle that one.
Lauren: Absolutely. The first conversation that we had, that the Workplace Sustainability Committee grew out of that original conversation, I won’t say that there was any pushback in the realm of people being opposed to listing the salary. There were some concerns raised about how do we implement this? What kind of timeline does it have? Are we going to get any blowback from the organizations that already use our job bank? We took the time after that initial conversation, as Will said, to do the membership survey and to really kind of have the information from our members to take back to the board so that we could do our members’ priorities first and not what we thought our priorities should be and at that point, once we presented this information to our board and we presented kind of a pseudo plan to implement this requirement or this change, the board really came through with flying colors and there was very little opposition in that realm.
And actually, we just had another board meeting a couple of weeks ago and we were pleased to hear that all of those concerns have really been groundless. We have seen no blowback from the other organizations that use our job bank. The implementation went incredibly smoothly and that we have actually seen some other organizations kind of take notice and start having a similar conversation with their own board because of the conversations that we’ve had.
Suse: Yeah, I was curious about that, as to … You’re one of, I think, six regional museums associations around the US, the sort of large associations and I wondered how these different associations were influencing each other or feeding into each other with as much as the practicalities of tackling this, as you say, some of the hesitation wasn’t necessarily about, is this appropriate, but how do we make sure that we do this in ways that is fair to our organizations and fair to our museum members? Do you have conversations with other museum associations and other organizations about the work that you’ve been doing with this?
Lauren: We have actually. All of the board members with MPMA tend to represent or have conversations with their individual state organizations and then the MPMA staff and executive committee speaks very frequently with the representatives and staff from other regional organizations.
We’re all aware of what everybody else is doing and open to having those conversations across boundaries, across those geographic boundaries. Will, I know that you can speak to this as well, I know that there are several states that have started putting this topic on their agenda, but no decision has yet been made and then I believe it’s Kansas and there’s another state that has followed suit and has started requiring salary requirements on their job board as well.
Will: Yeah, so within our own region, both Kansas and New Mexico kind of took note of the September board meeting where MPMA adopted this initiative and have, since that time, adopted the initiative themselves and I know that of our six-member committee, our Workplace Sustainability Committee, we each represent different states in the region and each of us has taken this issue back to our states and so far, our states haven’t pushed it through yet, it’s certainly something that is part of the conversation at the board level in those states too and then just to echo what Lauren said, our staff with MPMA and in particular, our executive director, do a fantastic job reaching out and talking to the other regional organizations through the council of regions and have certainly, as we’ve been made well aware, have been bringing this issue up with them and kind of hoping to get them to move along, along a similar trajectory as well and I believe that the Mid-Atlantic Museum Association has also adopted this policy.
Suse: Yeah, it seemed actually that now this is happening, it’s moving quite quickly. It seems that there are a number of organizations that are starting to change their requirements and almost doing it, not necessarily in concert but it does seem like this is all happening quite quickly. Why do you think the habit of salary cloaking persisted within the museum sector for so long and why is it changing now so quickly? Will, maybe you can continue that.
Will: I mean I would say that I think it persists in a lot of sectors. It’s not unique to the museum sector. There is a larger structure that is well beyond our control of that I think really needs to be addressed in our society. I can’t necessarily speak to why it’s persisted in the museum sector for so long but certainly there’s been a groundswell in recent years of folks, especially emerging professionals and again, those kind of early to mid-career professionals, feeling that this salary cloaking is inequitable and doesn’t necessarily benefit anyone in any real capacity.
And that’s a lot of the conversation that we had with our members is, those that go out on the job market and apply for positions, find themselves overwhelmed by the number of positions that may be out there and in many instances, choose not to apply for a position if it doesn’t list a salary because they simply see it as a waste of their limited time and the amount of time that they have to apply for work and then of course, if they do apply and they get to that interview stage, maybe they even get invited to come out and visit the museum and at that point they hear what the salary is and the salary is something that they and their families can’t live off of, then they feel like they’ve wasted a lot of their time and money and effort.
And one of the hooks we had in conversations with some of the folks on the MPMA board that are further along in their careers and that are maybe on the hiring side of this conversation is that it’s not really beneficial to their institutions either because they’re bringing out these folks, they’re spending their institution’s money to recruit them, to try to entice them to accept a position at their museum and then they’re unable to offer them potentially a salary that is livable and now they’ve wasted time and resources trying to recruit a young professional or a mid-career professional and so I think there’s a growing awareness of the fact that almost no one really benefits from cloaking the salary and that opening that up, making that available, and being transparent about that kind of information actually can help everyone in this process and can save everyone a little bit of time and money.
Suse: You mentioned that with the Workplace Sustainability Council, that you had done a survey around seven issues, I think you said, looking at where people’s priorities were. What are the other hiring practices and challenges related to hiring that you were interested in addressing at the MPMA or within that survey as sort of your first set of questions? Lauren, what were those questions you were asking?
Lauren: From initial conversations that the committee had, we just developed a list of things that MPMA could foreseeable and realistically look at as action items and we just presented those to the membership and had them basically tell us what their priorities would be, what they would prefer we do, how we could be most helpful to them, how we could serve them best. Of course, the salary cloaking issue was by far and away, the most important to them. We also talked about helping to equip our membership, knowing employee rights, negotiations, exactly what you can and can’t ask for in hiring in regards to the type of organization that you’re applying to.
The EMP, the Emerging Museum Professionals group, does a really fantastic job in equipping and providing resources to emerging museum professionals, to emerging employees, and we’ve been able to come alongside the MPMA group in that in helping to further their resources and really use the membership and having a transparency with our membership so that they feel that there is a safe space for these conversations and that there’s a space where we can bring in people on the hiring side, directors and administrators, who are able to share things from their perspective as well, that people earlier in their career and mid-level may not completely understand or even be aware of.
At this point, we’re really looking at bringing all of the appropriate voices together to have the conversations and even at the last annual MPMA conference, we had specific speaking sessions where we invited attendees to come in and just share some of their challenges and we’ve used that conversation to then help direct the Workplace Sustainability Committee and the things that we’re going to be doing moving forward, specifically with hiring practices and addressing work-life balance and a whole bunch of different issues coming together, but of course it all stemmed and started from that job cloaking. The salary listings was just far and away what everybody was thinking of in the first place.
Suse: Yeah, absolutely. I think there is a real tide of pressure on this. For institutions that are still thinking about adopting salary transparency that haven’t yet or for even institutions that haven’t started thinking about it, I’d love if you could each make a case as to why they should. How does this help make a better sector for all of us? Will, you started to touch on it a little bit I think by talking about fairness for everyone, including the institutions but what is the case that would compel an organization to do this if they’re not even thinking about it yet?
Will: In addition to what I think it can save an institution in terms of time and resources and not recruiting somebody who just simply will be unable to accept a job because of whatever salary and compensation is available. I also, and Lauren and I have talked a lot about this recently, I also find it kind of mind-numbing and ironic in the worst possible way for a field that prides itself on equity and inclusion, to be struggling to be transparent about such a basic, basic issue and if we’re going to talk a lot about what museums can do to improve our communities and to create more equitable societies and then we’re going to play games with what we’re willing to compensate our employees, it strikes me as contradictory and for institutions that really embrace the notion of inclusion and diversity and equity in their practice and in the kinds of exhibitions and programs they put together, I would see this as an extension of that.
Suse: Lauren, is there anything you’d add to that?
Lauren: Well I mean the practical applications do present a bottom-line issue here but when we get beyond that, we’re looking at developing a level of trust and transparency between employees and their organizations and we know that people work better when they’re able to trust that they’re being taken care of and that starts at the very beginning from your first interview and developing that impression and that relationship. If we’re looking at creating and developing museum facilities that have a positive impact in their community and that create a space where people can come and think and have conversations outside of themselves, that challenge maybe their own perspectives, that has to start with the staff that you have at that organization and that staff can only present their best work when they feel that their organization is on their side and they can’t know that or what the very first step in knowing that is having an organization that is transparent and open about what they can and can’t offer an employee and that, of course, starts with salary.
Suse: Thinking about trust as something that is not just offered by the individual to the institution but from the institution to the individual and from in fact, the individuals running an institution and working in an institution, that there are these significant relationships that are being built and developed upon which all of the other work that we do happens. I think that trust is a really important point. Is there anything else, thinking about his moving forward or how you’d like to see a sector changed by these kinds of actions. Where would you like to see the thinking continuing around hiring practices and this sort of equitable and fair hiring within the sector?
Will: Well I’m happy to touch on that a little bit. First off, we want to emphasize again that much of what Lauren and I are doing and what the Workplace Sustainability Committee is doing, is guided by our membership and so it’s not so much what we think needs to be dealt with, it’s what the broader membership of MPMA is telling us-
Will: -are issues that they see that are affecting their daily lives and I’m sure Lauren can touch on this some as well but the issue after this job bank and salary transparent conversation that I think we’re seeing dominate much of what we’ve done so far in terms of the membership survey and the listening sessions we’ve held at conferences, is the issue of work-life balance and what place an employee of a museum has in discussing work-life balance issues with their colleagues and with their superiors within the institution, with whoever hires them.
We see a lot of folks who get burnt out in the museum field because of how much work is required of them and there was a lot of conversation, especially during our listening sessions at this past conference, from folks who took issue with the other duties as assigned line that’s so standard in many of our job descriptions and really wondered if we could ask for more clarity on what that might mean and if they were in a position or could be in a position to have more open conversations with potential employers about what other duties as assigned might contain and certainly talking to some folks too who find themselves working so many evening events and weekend events and daytime programs and really struggle to develop a personal social life outside of work and there certainly seemed to be some questioning in the conversations we’ve had with members over how much sacrifice should be asked of them, how much of their personal life they should have to sacrifice to work all of these additional programs without having time to … being able to make up that time elsewhere, I guess, is what I’m trying to say and I don’t know if Lauren wants to add to that.
Lauren: It comes up every time we have a conversation about a young lady who has a master’s degree and yet she’s working three part-time museum jobs because nobody will hire her full-time. I had a conversation with a young woman and somebody asked her, “What do you think is the most important thing moving forward,” or, “What would you tell people moving forward about the museum?” And she said, “You know what? I love my job, but I feel like I can’t say no.” Anytime somebody comes to her in her organization and asks her to do one more thing, she feels like she has no choice but to say yes.
And recognizing that these are issues, recognizing that this is not something, well this is how it’s always been done, so we should continue in this, realizing that there are some barriers there conceptually about how people should work and recognizing too that this idea of working for a museum and working for a nonprofit is a sacrifice and that you have to sacrifice in order to work there, that that idea in and of itself feeds this inequity, feeds this issue of inclusion and automatically cuts people out, that there are automatically people who are not able to step forward and do amazing work because they can’t, because they can’t live on what’s being offered or what’s available.
Will mentioned this earlier too, this is a much broader issue. It is definitely an issue that we will be struggling with in a lot of ways moving forward but I think the first step is just recognizing that it is an issue and having those spaces where we can have these conversations and allow, as a service organization, allow our membership to drive that and I think that for us, that was one of the most important things for us in making this job bank decision and other decisions and action items that we’re working towards, is having that be membership-driven and having those conversations upfront and open.
Will: And there have been several articles lately about, especially millennial burnout, and that 20s and 30 somethings feeling exactly like Lauren said, that it’s impossible to say no, feeling that if they’re not working, they’re not being productive and that they need to be productive and so certainly this conversation where we’re hearing a lot of this work-life balance concern tends to come from that younger, early to mid-career professional demographic and they’re folks who just have been acculturated and not just because they’re museum people but by our larger society to feel like they have to be constantly pressing, constantly working, and constantly seeking a better opportunity and a better career.
And what it sounds like from our conversations with them, they would like from a committee like ours, is resources and tools to help them understand, when it is okay to say no and to help them understand that it is, in fact, okay to have a balance between your passion for your museum, which is very deep and very strong and your personal life and your time outside of work, that it is okay to have a balance there and that it is okay to stand up for the need to have a balance there, to prevent you from being burnt out, because we are seeing, I think throughout the museum field and a lot of other fields, we’re seeing a lot of folks getting burnt out at a fairly young age because of overwork and too much stress and I think a lot of it can be traced back to these issues.
Suse: Yeah, the downsides of the so-called gig economy of having to have so many hustles on top of your main hustle, having the side hustles and the main hustle and always be working and pouring so much of yourself into the work that you’re doing. Lauren, Will, this has been really great. It’s so useful to hear how not only your organization is talking about this but how much of it is being member-driven and really reflecting a deep desire for change within the sector. It is really useful to hear how organizations everywhere can be tackling this and institutions everywhere can be tackling this and that some of the changes can actually be relatively simple but make a major difference.
Thank you both for joining me on Museopunks today. It has been so wonderful to hear about the work that you are doing with MPMA.
Lauren: Thanks for having me.
Will: Thanks for having us.
Suse: Michelle Epps serves as the president of the National Emerging Museum Professionals Network. She’s been involved with the NEMPN since 2011 and has served as president since 2015. Epps currently works as the community engagement coordinator at SPACES in Cleveland, Ohio and is the interim museum educator at Lakewood Historical Society. Much of her professional work involves creating access to the arts for vulnerable individuals, such as incarcerated youth, LGBT seniors, kids living in public housing, and homeless women and children. She has a master’s in history with a specialization in museum studies and a certificate in nonprofit business management from Case Western Reserve University. Epps also serves on the advisory committee for Kent State University’s MuseLab and the Education and Museum Outreach Advisory Council for the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. Michelle, welcome to Museopunks.
Michelle Epps: Thanks for having me.
Suse: It’s such a pleasure. Now, you’re the president of the National Emerging Museum Professionals Network. People might not be familiar with the EMP Network, especially those who are themselves more established in their field. Can you tell us a little bit about the network and it’s history and it’s mission?
Michelle: Yeah, so we really kind of started about, I’d say almost like four years ago now, back in 2015. We formed out of the initiative that the American Alliance of Museums had put together back in 2010, which was focusing on people primarily within their first 10 years of their career and we’ve kind of continued this, except we don’t really consider EMPs as necessarily people that have just been in their career 10 years, we go much later, and we view it as a more self-determining kind of identification where, if they feel they’re still emerging, they can still be considered an EMP.
We feel that with people who have been maybe in an entry-level job for 15 years but kind of still feel that they have more room to grow, that they can consider themselves EMPs but if they’re somebody that’s like, “This is it for me. This is where I’m resting my career. This is where I’m going to be developing,” they would be considered established.
Suse: And that’s really interesting. I have noticed that in the mission of the National EMP Network, that it said that this is to engage museum professionals across all stages of their careers in building vibrant communities of networking, knowledge exchange, and resource sharing and I was quite interested in this idea that it is across all stages of their careers.
You mentioned that it’s sort of a self-determining idea of being emerging versus established. What do you find in common of the people who are drawn to the network? Is it that they’re really interested in moving up? Is it that they’re seeking a support network? What do you sort of see in your membership?
Michelle: A lot of what we see are … We have a couple different layers that are going on. We have our predominant audience that is … or what we consider our members, that are just graduated from a museum studies program or maybe they’ve just recently switched, so they’ve worked in a totally different field and they’re coming to museums for the first time. They may be an accountant but it may be their first time accounting for a museum, so they might seek us out to kind of see what the trends are and what people are talking about but we do have a lot of, what we would consider established professionals, that are kind of following along with what we’re doing, I guess in a way to kind of see what the emerging population is thinking and their mindset about certain things.
We have a wide range of an audience but the main thing in common, I think is they’re usually … I don’t want to say millennials but they’re typically in that age range but we do, like I said, get people that are older or younger and their main thing is they typically want to make a difference in museums.
Suse: Yeah, I think that’s a really nice bit of motivation. What kind of activities is the network engaged in?
Michelle: We have a couple of initiatives that we do. We do a journal called Theory and Practice, which we are collaborating with The Museum Scholar, which is an online journal, and they focus on … I think they just started a partnership in Scotland as well and they work as a platform for journals relating to museum issues and they have a keen focus on EMPs because a lot of times, there’s not very many publication opportunities for people that are emerging in their career and so we kind of independently came to these ideas on our own and then realized that we’re doing the same thing and we’re like, “Well, they have the platform and we have the audience,” so we partnered together so that we could get a peer-reviewed journal off the ground so emerging professionals can actually talk about these serious issues that are really dear to their heart and have an audience to do that instead of having to wait for a conference or submit their article to a journal that may never be published.
Suse: That’s really great. One of the activities that I think that you’re doing that is super interesting is the Salary Range on Museum Job Postings Letter Writing Campaign. Can you talk a bit about this campaign and why you’ve decided to work with your network on it?
Michelle: Yeah, it’s one of the initiatives we’re doing. It’s a staged initiative, so it’s being released in a couple of steps. The first one was, we were trying to convince other museum associations to switch the practice of posting jobs on their jobs boards without salary and this is something that came out of a lot of activity on our Facebook group where people were lamenting the fact that they would look for a job, the requirement would say that they need a master’s degree or this, that, and the other kind of experience, maybe like six years of experience, and they would think that they would be a good candidate for this job and they would go all the way through the hiring practice, getting to second interviews and final interviews and finding out that it was only paying like $8.50 an hour and so that created a lot of people that were upset.
I don’t know if upset is the right word but definitely kind of a trend of, if I would have known that this was only paying $8.50, I wouldn’t have wasted my time or the hiring person’s time to seek this job out because it’s not a job that I could afford to take or we also get people that said that they felt pressure to take the job because they couldn’t find anything else and a job is better than no job but then they quickly try to find a way out. In the end, it’s still … The museum is left having to hire somebody else and if they would have been honest with the pay rate right off the bat, then they may have found a person that was able to do that job for that rate but the way that we approach it is not kind of criticizing the museums or the museum associations for not making this a requirement because this is something that’s fairly recent, even in the larger job market as far as salary transparency goes, so we wanted to really talk with museum associations and tell them where we were coming from and see if they would consider changing and we had a fair number of them that had discussions with us and actually did make the change.
There was about 26. 20 … I mean about three of them, three to four of them had already actually had this process in place but there was 22 to 23 that this is something they may have heard about but didn’t put too much thought on it but then after having the conversations with us, they decided it was the best thing to do, like it was a best practice. The organizations that felt that maybe they couldn’t oblige us to make that change, we were seeing the same complaints of like, “Well, there’s reasons why museums don’t disclose salary for negotiating purposes. They also don’t want to make their current employees disgruntled if they find out somebody can make more money than them coming on fresh,” and this idea that pay secrecy is something that’s allowed to be asked of employees.
We went through very meticulously and identified those three areas and really laid them out about how it’s kind of … Those issues are really non … It doesn’t matter. Of course, you can’t tell somebody that they shouldn’t tell their salary to other employees because that’s actually illegal. There’s protections in place where people can talk about their salary. Also the issue of the disgruntledness, we kind of addressed it as, well if you know your employees are going to be disgruntled, maybe this opens up a conversation for you about pay in general, about how you’re compensating your employees and then also with the negotiation thing, we kind of feel that if you’re going to pay somebody to do a job, you know what that budget is before you even post that position, so just pay the person fairly based on the position.
That’s kind of the stance that we were coming from and so the organizations that said that they couldn’t require their member organizations to kind of mimic this requirement for their job postings, they were telling us, “Well you should really be having these conversations with individual museums,” and there’s about … I think there’s more now than 30 thousand museums in the US alone and we’re focusing just on the US because there’s … Of course, if you look at Europe and even Asia right now, there’s so many museums and museum studies programs popping up. We figured we would just focus on the US, which is where we’re based but they were telling us, “This is really a conversation that should be had one-on-one with a museum hiring individuals and museums in general.”
The next step that we took was, well we can’t have conversations individually and go out to every single museum and have this conversation. That’s just impossible. We really activated our membership to work as agents for us, to notify us when a museum job was posted without a salary. We started our museum salary transparency alert and it’s just a Google form. It’s really simple. It’s nothing super fancy and they can … While they’re job searching, find … If they come across a job that doesn’t have a salary, they can alert us to this issue and then we contact the museum on their behalf and say, “Hey, I noticed you didn’t have salary listed for this position. It sounds like a great position. This is the reason why we think that you should include salary and please join us in this effort to make museums a more equitable workforce,” and we’ve done about 60 emails.
We just started this last month, so we haven’t had … We’re not dealing in the hundreds yet. We’re just kind of starting out and people are finding out about it but we’ve contacted about 60 museums and one of those has actually gotten back to us and started a dialogue about it, which to me is kind of a big win because I wasn’t really anticipating a lot of response because as things come in your email, you may see it and just say, “Eh whatever,” but what we’re really hoping to do with that part of the initiative, that step, is to saturate the conversation in the field so that way it’s not an excuse of like, “Well I didn’t know about that. I’ve never heard of it before,” so really saturating the information out there.
Suse: That’s great. How does salary transparency actually help make a fairer and more equitable sector, especially for emerging professionals?
Michelle: Well I think one of the big concerns is because there is an increasing kind of focus on museum studies degrees. Since there’s a lot of people graduating with museum studies degrees, it’s kind of flooding the market with these people with master’s degrees or certificates or bachelor’s. We’re seeing more and more that that’s almost like a requirement on a job to work in a museum. Not across the board, of course, there’s definitely outliers but because they’re just so prevalent, it seems like that’s something that a museum can require for filling a position, even though it might not necessarily really need somebody with a master’s degree.
We feel that if you have somebody who needs a master’s degree, that comes with a lot of debt and a lot of time and a lot of expertise because you’re actually going through and proving that you know the knowledge and then turning around and paying them minimum wage is kind of … It’s not exactly fair, especially if it’s something where it’s not been disclosed. We feel that if a person knows ahead of time that it’s $8.50 or whatever the price is, maybe it’s $10 an hour or the salary is $25,000 a year or whatever, that they can actually opt in to actually do that job for that amount and so that person has already kind of set up that threshold of like, that’s a job that I could do for that amount but for most people, they need to make a living wage to support themselves and so this is kind of larger focus of really kind of keying into the fact that we’re not paying our cultural employees or our museum employees a fair price for what they’re actually bringing to the organization.
I know a lot of times, small institutions are probably the biggest organizations that kind of commit this, to this rate of minimum wage or whatever because that’s what they could afford but in my mind, it’s, if you’re going to ask somebody to have a master’s degree, then you should be able to pay them what’s worth a master degree. I don’t know if I said that right but … If you are going to require that degree, then you better have the budget to pay them for that expertise.
Suse: Beyond salary transparency, what other practices would help create a more equitable museum workforce?
Michelle: That’s a good question. The larger museum situation is, you have a small group of very large museums that are more bureaucratic and actually have clear paths to advancement but most of the museums in the US are small house museums or niche museums and you could work that job for however many years you’re there and not really advance and so the professional development isn’t there. A person who’s taking on that job may actually only make $8.50 for the duration of their career. There’s no look to cost of living. There’s also this assumption that, since you’re working for a charity, that you should be paid almost a poverty wage, which is extremely, I think, unfair to expect somebody to put all their time and effort and then basically tell them, “Well you enjoy your job, so this should be payment enough,” but then there’s also the issue of the fact that there’s not that many positions available, even though there are 30 thousand plus museums, a lot of those museums …
And I’m not going to say most of them but there are a number of museums that actually employ their entire staff with volunteers and I think when we’re talking about our shared cultural heritage, how vulnerable that leaves some of our collections. I mean with the Notre Dame just burning down, I mean I know they’re not volunteer-run but when you think of that on a smaller scale, the fact that nonprofessionals are being asked to caretake our shared culture and be the stewards of that but yet they don’t have the knowledge on how to do that. I think there’s a larger … There’s several larger problems that are impacting the museum field and one is that professionalization.
Suse: Yeah. Are there unique challenges that emerging professionals and in this case, I do mean those in the earliest part of their career, not those who are emerging later in their career, face within those first few years?
Michelle: Yeah, so I think for some individuals … This generation that we’re working with now, which I guess there’s like the cusp of millennials and this is their first … They want to work in museums. That’s their career. That’s where they see their life. They are very keyed into social issues and they see the museum as an agent for change and what I see a lot is they’ll get employed at a museum or they’ll have a difficult time getting employed in a museum because of how they feel about certain things. In a larger institution who, when they hear the word, decolonization, might not bristle.
They might say, “Oh that’s probably something we should look into or something to at least be aware of,” but if you go into a smaller place in a smaller town and you use words like, decolonization or diversity inclusion or these kind of things, there’s this barrier that goes up because it means change and a lot of these institutions or a lot of museums are change-averse and so when you have a person who’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed coming right out of graduate school that’s saying, “I want to change the world with museums,” and there’s that potential there and they see it, especially in larger institutions, and then for them, it’s actually even hard to get into the door to actually even make those changes.
For them, there’s a lot of frustration because they have all these great ideas but there’s just either an unwillingness to change or they get the pat on the head of like, “Oh that’s nice. You just haven’t been exposed long enough to the interior workings of the museum to actually make that happen.” But yeah, so this population is very concerned with diversity inclusion, issues relating to provenance of objects, where donations are coming from, and I think by the larger established professionals, maybe not all established professionals, but definitely administration, it looks like a kind of rocking of the boat and of course, if you have somebody that might come onto your staff and rock the boat, then you’re not going to employ them because they don’t fit with your “culture.”
Suse: Right, or unless … I think there are institutions that seek that but as you say, if this is sort of a generational change, if this is a change that we’re seeing in a large population coming through, that again, becomes a question of competition for relatively few positions in institutions where there may already be a commitment to this kind of work.
Michelle: Yeah, so I think the number of museums that actually are really committed to this work are probably not as many as the organizations that are kind of just doing their day to day and not really thinking about larger trends or future trends or anything like that.
Suse: Yeah, in some ways as you speak though, it seems to me that that’s also potentially an opportunity for these emerging professionals to be creating spaces for themselves within institutions. I mean that becomes a … There are these difficult things to navigate around internal culture, but it also becomes a skillset and a way of thinking that you can bring into a place that maybe doesn’t have anyone else guiding these conversations that they’re probably being asked to be part of in some ways anyway.
Michelle: Yeah, I think there’s the idea that there’s a lot of room for growth and that this perspective is one that’s kind of a fresh perspective that could really change the museum structure to include different populations that they’ve never included before or maybe think about their collection in a way of like, maybe we need to change the narrative a little bit to where it’s not just one-sided and I think there is a lot of enthusiasm, I think, around that and the possibility is something that’s very encouraging. I just think the mass adoption of it is going to be dependent on people that actually have this passion getting in those positions and with the current state of museums being, the majority being small museums, it’s a very difficult thing to kind of wedge yourself in to actually make that case but I think once you’re in there and you have a receptive audience, that it actually could be very fruitful and push things kind of in the right direction.
Suse: Yeah, I think that’s really interesting. Would you suggest, for someone who’s coming, say out of a museum studies program now, who is very motivated by a desire to help change the sector, would you suggest being open and upfront about that urge to change, even in interviews and in discussions or to have that be something that they’re a little quieter about until they get in the door and then sort of work to make that change?
Michelle: I’m glad you asked that question because that’s something I kind of struggle with when I see the conversations forming on our Facebook group, is, what is the approach? I mean you don’t want to be deceitful and kind of be like a sleeping dragon and then when you come in then it’s like, I want to change everything and I think sometimes if you’re overly honest in an interview, they may say like, “Yeah, well that’s not,” … Whoever is interviewing you may be like, “Well, we’re happy with the way things are.” I don’t really know the correct answer for that.
I think it would largely depend on the institution but I think yeah, that’s a tough one because it almost seems like what it’s encouraging is that people do just that, they kind of keep to themselves until the opportunity is right to then kind of launch this effort to change things a little bit from the inside and moderating it but I also think too, transparency has a lot to do with just improved communication. I do kind of struggle with this idea because for me, it’s like if somebody can understand the rationale behind why you’re doing it, then they might go along with you but sometimes people just shut their ears off before even getting to that point. I wish I knew the answer but that is a tough one and it’s something that I kind of struggle with every time I see these conversations pop up.
Suse: Yeah, it’s something I myself struggle with. One of the nice things about having had kind of a public persona as I’ve been figuring out a lot of these things myself is, I can’t hide my perspectives. Anyone who ever seeks to hire me in the world is going to know what they’re getting with me, but I’m also established and I think it becomes a trickier boundary that you’re walking if you’re someone who’s really committed to a lot of sort of changing practices but you’re still just figuring out how to get a job in the first place.
Michelle: Yeah and I think a lot of people too because they are … They feel very strongly about their views and rightly so but I think sometimes … You don’t know who’s watching you on social media and you don’t know who knows who and so there’s a lot of that going on too where it’s like, you may not even disclose it in an interview but then somebody else may be like, “I used to work with them and they’re X, Y, Z,” and I think that’s really kind of a horrible situation to be in because if you’re the person that’s the best fit for that job to make those changes but yet you can’t even get in the door because of your reputation as being somebody who’s vocal, that’s exactly who you want in that position to make those changes, so it’s interesting and like I said, I don’t really think that there’s a clear cut answer.
I wish there was because that would be definitely something I would be advising our members to do and I do think it’s on a case-by-case basis but it definitely complicates things when the people that are best suited for bringing these issue to light and are really passionate about it can’t even get a job at a museum to do that.
Suse: Yeah. I agree with you. If we were to reach a point where salary transparency was widely adopted, where we had institutions that were concerned with these issues and trying to think about how they themselves can be better hirers, how do you think the museum field might change?
Michelle: Well I think you’d get a lot of people that are a fit for the job. I think, especially when I look at small museums, sometimes it’s just whoever is in the room at the time there’s an opening and so I think what would happen is a sense of a standardization really of skill. A person that is … I’m not necessarily saying that they need their master’s degree but there would be an expectation of professionalism that just is not in the field right now and I think that would just elevate the field because then you have people that are working at their best, you have the best employees for the job, and they’re really concerned with not only propelling museums forward but caretaking what so many people in the past have painstakingly worked to achieve. I think, for the continuity of the field, it’s just important to have professionals making a professional wage, taking care of our shared collective culture.
Suse: Yeah. As someone who’s been in the sector now for around a decade, I think, if I go back to your bio, what do you wish someone had told you when you were just first starting out?
Michelle: I don’t know. That’s a hard one because I kind of grew up in museums. I knew it was … When I was younger of course, I wanted to be a veterinarian or somebody working at a zoo because I loved animals but when I got a little older, museums were very comfortable and it was a place that I could see myself working and then when I got to college, it was very clear, I’m going to be working at a museum but I wish I would have really been aware of the lack of, I wouldn’t say livable salary, but the disparity in the salary between organizations and the fact that funding is greatly different.
A museum that’s very large has a lot more money to pull from but yet a small museum does not have the funding to do all the great things that a larger museum can do with the budget they have. I think just being aware of that kind of difference and that you are going to have to put in a lot of free time to get where you are. I mean I did several internships before I landed my first job and I think that’s not something that’s being taught to prospective museum professionals. In fact, even though you have the degree, experience trumps that and that it’s really something you need and so you’re going to have to find a way to get that experience. If you can’t afford it, then you’re going to have to find other ways to make it work because that’s going to be the ultimate way to get in the field.
Suse: Yeah and again, then becomes the same question of how we make a field that is equitable and fair so that people can actually afford to do the stuff to get the jobs in the first place. Yeah.
Michelle: Yeah, one of the things that we’ve been seeing a lot and it kind of prompted the focus on salary specifically was, there were so many people having these very explosive public blogs or posts saying how they were leaving the field and that they love themselves too much to put themselves through the low wages, the long hours, the inability to find a job, on themselves any longer and it was a really kind of dig at their own personality because they identified as a museum professional, which I thought was interesting and then leaving it was almost like telling everybody that you’re now a vegetarian or you’re now a vegan or something. It was this big, emotional response and so when we looked at the underlying causes, we’re like, what’s going on here? But I think it is really interesting to see how people identify themselves and then it’s hard for them to make that break to actually being okay with leaving the field because they’ve identified themselves so much with the field.
Suse: It’s just interesting hearing you speak. A couple of times you’ve spoken about the kind of emotional responses that people will have when they go through a search and then realize they can’t possibly take the job or when they feel the need to leave the sector because it turns out it wasn’t sustainable for them.
To some extent, the choices that our individual institutions making have bigger implications in terms of then how the sector as a whole is viewed and how people come to it or decide not to come to it. If you were to give a call out, if per your letter writing campaign you were able to speak to the HR managers of all of the institutions here in the US, what would you say to convince them that salary transparency is the right thing?
Michelle: Well what we’ve been saying to them is the fact that it’s … Not only is it the right thing to do … If you’re an organization that is very public facing and saying, “We want to be inclusive of our community and have a very strong community focus,” it’s kind of hypocritical then to turn around and try to see how little money you can put out there to get the talent for the very person that’s going to be doing that job and it also kind of lends itself to … It’s not like direct pay discrimination but when you have somebody who … I mean there’s no clear cut answer of what they mean by … We come across this a lot where it’s like, salary commensurate with experience.
Well they don’t really identify what experience. It kind of lends itself because it’s all hush hush and behind closed doors that you can actually justify paying somebody for the same job, less or more and for us, it’s like, just pay … I mean you know how much money that you have for this position budgeted already, just pay the person … I know there’s a lot of push for museums to act like businesses but we’re not but we’re adopting a lot of business practices that are just not fair to the workforce. I mean we’re already working a nonprofit, so chances are your salary is a little lower but why have somebody basically try to get you for the least amount of money they possibly can? They should just be paying and giving you fair compensation for what you’re providing, regardless of what your previous experiences was. If you were seen as being good enough to get that job, then they should pay you that same wage.
Suse: Michelle, I think that makes a lot of sense. If people want to find out more about what you’re doing or more about the National EMP Network, where can they do so?
Michelle: Yeah, so they can visit us at our website which is, nationalempnetwork.org. They can also email me directly which is, email@example.com and then of course we actually have a really lively community on our Facebook group, which is basically just Emerging Museum Professionals and they can join and join the conversation.
Suse: Yeah, that is great. Michelle, thanks.
Michelle: Thank you for having me.
Suse: Thank you Will, Lauren, and Michelle. It is great to hear the work you’re doing to build habits of transparency into the sector.
In the next couple of months, Museopunks is going to be going through a few changes. In early April, I put a call out for a new collaborator and co-host of the podcast on my blog. A ton of people reached out. It was a little overwhelming and I really shouldn’t have done this at the end of semester, including some people who I know well and some people who I don’t.
I had a series of conversations with people over the last several weeks about the show and about what a partnership might look like. In the end, I’ve ended up with a partner who is a friend and a collaborator from other parts of the museum world. He’s even been a guest co-host on this show before. Ed Rodley, who’s dulcet tones you heard in your ears last month is going to be joining me in a coming episode as a collaborator, a co-host, and a co-producer of the show. The decision to do an open call rather than merely reaching out to my networks was aimed at finding the people whom I could never have imagined and even though the process took me back to a trusted colleague in the end, the discussions that I had were wonderful and generative and they’ve really encouraged me to think more creatively about other forms of collaboration that might make sense within this show, such as having regular guests or correspondents from the field.
I don’t know exactly what form that’s going to take but the next few months will include some behind the scenes discussion, exploration, and experimentation, as we look at the longer-term impact of conversations around the future of Museopunks. Here’s to brighter and different futures.
Museopunks is presented every month by the American Alliance of Museums. You can connect with me on Twitter, @museopunks and check out the extended show notes at museopunks.org and of course, you can subscribe any time at iTunes or Stitcher.
As you head out into the world today, be brave, try something new, do something kind for somebody.