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Same Storm, Different Boats

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
Several members of the Alice Paul Institute staff in front of the organization’s headquarters in Mt. Laurel, NJ.
Several members of the Alice Paul Institute staff in front of the organization’s headquarters in Mt. Laurel, NJ.

Sometimes, in the wake of disruptive events. the world acts like a rubber band, snapping back to its original shape. Other times, disruptions have a lasting impact—resetting our boundaries, reshaping our practice. It will take several years to assess what changes impelled by the COVID-19 pandemic fade away, and which become embedded in our future. Today on the blog, executive director Allison Titman tells us how she is re-designing HR practices of the Alice Paul Institute, using lessons learned from COVID to make the nonprofit workplace more equitable and supportive.
Elizabeth Merritt, Vice President, Strategic Foresight and Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums, American Alliance of Museums

Early in the pandemic, I heard someone (probably in 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 subject to the same public health crisis, we were not experiencing it the same way. Factors like race, ethnicity, employment status and stability, financial situation, marital status, parental status, age, health history, and so many others made a dramatic difference in whether someone watched their life fall apart around them, experienced minor difficulties, or fell somewhere on the wide spectrum in between. This inequality will not dissipate as the pandemic ebbs, so how can we take equity into consideration as we shape the museum workplace and staffing structures of the future?

The metaphor of “different boats” has particular resonance for me because I work at an organization—the Alice Paul Institute (API)—whose mission is focused on furthering gender equality and empowering girls to see themselves as leaders. Having a background in women’s history, I am familiar with how gender and other social factors that intersect with it cause people to experience inequality.

I have been at API since January and in the museum field for over 15 years. In my work at and with small museums, larger institutions, and museum associations, I have experienced many of the issues within our field firsthand, including low pay, a lack of adequate benefits, and sexism. I am aware that I still am one of the lucky ones—my white privilege has shielded me from the racial and ethnic discrimination faced by others, I have secured steady work in positions of progressive responsibility, and I am not saddled with crushing student loan debt. As I have moved into leadership positions, both in employment and on boards, I have felt an increasing sense of responsibility to call out inequality in museum work and take tangible steps to change it.

When I started analyzing API’s operations, I saw an opportunity to use our external-facing mission around gender equality as the guiding light for our internal human resources management. Thanks to excitement around and support for the centennial commemorations of women’s suffrage, the API team had grown from three to nine in less than three years. I found, though, that our human resources policies and practices had not always kept up with this rapid growth. Titles and pay bands were not standardized, salaries were not necessarily benchmarked against other local non-profits, and the benefits package had not kept pace with current norms. Given that the staff is currently all-female, it feels even more critical to put in place a structure that counteracts rather than perpetuates the negative trends affecting women in the workplace.

During the pandemic, researchers found a “pattern of women dropping out to care for children as men continued to work. In the U.S., 1.8 million fewer women were employed in May 2021 compared to the previous peak in February 2020, the last measure before most U.S. offices were shuttered.” (Summary quoted from Bloomberg News.) This data is even more depressing in light of the evidence that even prior to the pandemic women were struggling to juggle their personal and professional commitments and subject to a persistent gender pay gap that is exacerbated by race and present even at the highest levels of non-profit leadership.

Not long ago, someone posted a question on AAM’s Museum Junction listserv for museum CEO’s asking what percent of work would continue to be remote after the pandemic subsides. Admittedly, the number of replies was small and the messages short, but the number of respondents saying that they intend to return 100% to onsite work left me concerned that we were letting an opportunity to examine and redesign our work practices to improve employees’ quality of life pass us by. As museum leaders, I think it is key that we remember that everyone is still not in the same boat and seize this chance to break out of the old patterns that perpetuated inequality.

I do not say this lightly, as I know the work of running a museum is both hard and this is hard to prioritize when so much demands our attention. My strategy is to include an examination of how to further our goal of gender equality in each management task. Right now, that means using our budget process to examine our pay scale and benefits offerings. We are also in the midst of setting up a new retirement plan that allows for an employer match; our old plan was only set up for employees to contribute. My to-do list for the future includes:

  • Creating a defined staffing structure with associated, uniform pay ranges, and share that structure in our employee handbook.
  • Further revising the handbook to integrate telework and flexible schedules into our normal practices. I have had one-on-one conversations with each employee to establish how and where they can meet their professional responsibilities and while accommodating the other demands on their time and energy, but feel it’s important to formalize that flexibility
  • Using open positions as opportunities to increase staff diversity

Obviously there are budget implications to some of these initiatives. API is fortunate to have received increased grant support that will support the ones planned for the near-term. Others will require additional conversations between the Board and I about our priorities and our fundraising needs, but we are all in agreement about the need to integrate our external-facing value of gender equality into our internal practices.

This is not easy work, but it is essential, whether you view it from moral or a business perspective. I am a firm believer that museums can change the world; let’s do it for our staff members and ourselves as well as for our visitors.

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

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