Gender Equity and Museums

Since the Andrew W. Mellon Report came out we have been ruminating on what the findings indicate about inclusion in museums. We also wrote a recent piece which explored some of the current issues related to museum employment and labor. The Mellon report showed that museum staff have become 60% female over the last decade (women make up about 50.9% of the US population according to the 2012 census.) The Mellon report also states that:

“… job categories, including the subset of Curators, Conservators, Educators, and Leadership, are approximately 70% or more Female.”

“By decade born, museum employees appear to be growing comparatively more Female, as shown in Figure 11. For the job category subset of Curators, Conservators, Educators and Leadership, Males remain approximately 35- 40% of museum staff regardless of decade born.”

“With close attention to equitable promotion and hiring practices for senior positions, art museums should be able to achieve greater gender equality in their leadership cohorts within the foreseeable future.”

The Mellon Report uses the word “equality” as a benchmark for successful gender inclusion and focuses on data as sorted into binary gender categories of “male” and “female.” Equality, in this context, would mean that each defined gender group has the same share of the field. But the museum field needs a benchmark for successful gender inclusion that acknowledges the ways in which women and non-binary gender folks have been historically and systematically excluded through sexism and cissexism (oppression of individuals that do not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth.) “Equity” is the word we will be using in this article to refer to this needed benchmark for successful structural change. Equity, is when each group gets what they need to be successful in the field. This means groups may need different (not equal) structural changes to be successful.


Illustration by artist Angus Maguire.

What we would like to ask is: in what way does parity for women and men in the field, even a disproportionately high number of women in the field, indicate that we have made sufficient structural changes to support gender inclusion in museums? We would like to consider the following two statements, which are appearing frequently in current discourse on gender and museums, in order to explore this question in depth.

1) We have more gender inclusion in museums because there are now more women represented in the field than men.

There have been many women-dominated fields of practice throughout history, today these fields are sometimes referred to as “pink-collar jobs”. These fields were/are comprised of practices and spheres of influence that society has deemed to be associated with “women’s work”: caregiving, community building, social services, teaching etc. This work also has a history of being low-wage work or, at times, going uncompensated. Having women-dominated spaces and fields has historically been the result of gendered assumptions about work that essentialized women’s experiences. Therefore, parity in a field or even more women in a field than men does not equate to more power or more freedom. On the contrary, women dominated fields can be a function of the ways that gender-based bias and oppression structure society.

It is interesting that the rise of women in the museum workplace has also correlated with a rhetorical (and often actual) shift in the dominant role museums propose to play in society: from cultural authorities and arbiters to heightened interest in informal learning and community engagement goals. The latter group of functions have been traditionally associated with the women’s sphere.

Also, why are there fewer men entering the field? In a recent blog post on museum employment contributor Joseph Gonzales states:

We get very few male students (roughly 8-15% from year to year) in our programs. This says something about the perception of the work in museums, as well as I am assuming the levels of pay in our field. It’s not to say there aren’t males looking to work in museums, but they seem to take different tracks than museum studies, like becoming area experts, a la curators, which have the perception and often reality of possessing more prestige, more decision-making autonomy, access to greater social capital, and better starting wages.

Are traditional gender roles and spaces actually being reinforced as museums adopt an increasing number of relatively lower paid positions with job duties traditionally perceived as “women’s work”? Does this, the perceived feminized nature of museum work, dissuade men from desiring to pursue museums as a career? Are men of color, like women, finding it harder to enter the field due to double standards that they hold more advanced degrees in order to compete with white men in hiring and salary?

We cannot view these shifts and trends in museum work without understanding them in context of historical precedents for the ways oppression has played a role in constituting spheres of work. The challenge is to dig deeper than the numbers into how gender norms underpin our institutional structures and practices. There needs to be a new framework wherein the word “gender” is unlinked from cissexist gender binary assumptions. For example, the field needs to stop using “gender” as a synonym for “women” and “gender equality” as a synonym for “equality between men and women.” Designing surveys and studies of the field where transgender and non-binary folks have opportunities to self-identify and represent their experiences, and how these experiences intersect with other privileges and oppressions, is one way to start collecting data that really reflects gender in the the field.

2)  We have more gender inclusion in museums because the trend is that women are increasingly filling high level executive leadership positions in museums. 

Though there are more women in leadership in the field that does not necessarily a gender equitable field make, as discussed above. However, this fact does not discount the reality that women’s leadership in the field does mean more women have a voice in decisionmaking and have the opportunity to speak on their own behalf. It should be noted that currently the women who are represented in the field and in leadership roles are disproportionately white, and so any changes in the field that are currently affording more “women” opportunities are still structured in such a way that they are benefiting white women over women of color. This is just one example of how demographic shifts like “more women in the field” should be examined closely to understand who these changes benefit and what structures remain in place that are actively inhibiting a move toward equity. If we always have to talk about the “growing group of women in leadership” with caveats that this group is not representative of our cities actual populations, can we really say this fact is an indication of an ideal vision for gender equity?

Yet, as we have discussed here in examining the museum field’s relationship to women’s work, structural changes won’t happen by virtue of the presence of women, even women of all backgrounds. Rather it will take the intention and work of the field and leadership from women, transgender and non-binary gender folks across race, class, ability, and sexuality to challenge current gender norms and the ways in which these are reinforced by our institutions, including museums.

Demographic studies, such as the Mellon Report, are starting to collect and analyze information about gender’s intersections with race and class. If more demographic and data-oriented studies gave respondents an opportunity to name experiences as informed by their experiences of race, class, gender, sexuality and ability the field would be highly impacted in its understanding of equity broadly in museums and how to measure successful inclusion. Current research about museum staff does not account well for non-binary gender individuals or make them visible. Without visibility/acknowledgement (and data) how can we work to address the ways museums reinforce cisgender privilege and the oppression of non-binary gender individuals and transgender people?

We have more questions than we do answers about museums and gender equity. We also do not feel satisfied by research in the field that shows us a gendered shift in museum work. There is still much work to be done toward achieving gender equity in museums.


Aletheia Wittman is cocreator of the Incluseum.

Margaret Middleton is the exhibit designer for Boston Children’s Museum. She is an artist and craftsperson with a passion for designing and creating playful learning environments. She writes the blog On Exhibit. Recently, she developed and shared an Family-Inclusive Language Guide, which you can view here and purchase here.

nikhil trivedi is a web developer, composer and activist. He works at an art museum in Chicago developing web-based software in Java, PHP and Drupal. After hours, he creates music and art using a number of tools: guitar, sitar, composing noise, sound, and through collaborations with other artists. He’s a volunteer medical advocate for Rape Victim Advocates, and participates in movements to end oppression. When none of that’s happening, he likes to hike, make herbal medicines, and drink warm glasses of chai. He is cocreator of the Visitors of Color project. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter at @nikhiltri.

Erin Bailey-Sun is an independent museum professional working across cultural institutions in both fundraising and educational roles. Currently she is a Special Events and Fundraising Coordinator at University of Washington in Seattle, WA. Previously she has held positions with the Woodland Park Zoo, the Henry Art Gallery, Boys and Girls Club, and Seattle Art Museum. Outside of the office she continually looks for opportunities to rethink inclusion and engagement in relationship to contemporary culture and the politics therein. Additionally she is the co-founder of Queering the Museum project, an online platform aimed to dialogue and bring awareness to LGBTQ awareness in museums.  Most recently Bailey-Sun presented her work in St. Petersburg, Russia at the International Council of Museums (ICOM) conference, Museum, Politics, Power and in Atlanta, GA at the Alliance of American Museums (AAM) Annual Meeting. Bailey is a 2013 alum of the Graduate Museology Program at the University of Washington and is preparing applications for PhD.



  1. Reblogged this on Queering the Museum Project and commented:
    Recently Erin Bailey-Sun was asked to contribute to Gender Equity and Museums for the Incluseum, along with some truly great folks working across museums. We are so pleased with how it turned out and we want you to check it out as well!

  2. Carl Bennett · · Reply

    Your illustration is right on. If you do not know where you are going, it is hard to get there.

  3. Patricia Lannes · · Reply

    Great insight Aletheia! You are pushing us to think! Thanks, Patricia

    Patricia Lannes Founder and Director CALTA21 Cultures And Literacies Through Art for the 21st Century (516) 313-1091

    On Mon, Feb 8, 2016 at 11:48 AM, the incluseum wrote:

    > the incluseum posted: “Since the Andrew W. Mellon Report came out we have > been ruminating on what the findings indicate about inclusion in museums. > We also wrote a recent piece which explored some of the current issues > related to museum employment and labor. The Mellon report s” >

  4. When we mention women in leadership, let’s also talk about our governance composition. It seems clear to me that starting with a diverse board will help get more diverse staff. (So easy to say, so hard to do.)

    Keep up the good work, friends!

  5. […] the United States is now women; however, this sizeable growth begs the question as to whether it correlates with the transition of museums from being bastions of cultural authority to those spaces …. Are museums essentially mirroring and reiterating male-female power hierarchies and structures […]

  6. […] If you are or have been a museum worker, please consider taking a short, 10-question survey on sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. Results will be used to inform an article we (Aletheia Wittman and nikhil trivedi) are writing now that is inspired by questions that also drove our blog post titled “Gender Equity and Museums.” That post can be read here. […]

  7. […] experience undue discrimination while entering gallery spaces. Finally, museums are experiencing an influx of white women filling staff roles, leading to homogenized viewpoints, and lack senior staff with diverse backgrounds. With these […]

  8. […] experience undue discrimination while entering gallery spaces. Finally, museums are experiencing an influx of white women filling staff roles, leading to homogenized viewpoints, and lack senior staff with diverse backgrounds. With these […]

  9. […] such as restrooms, using inclusive language in their information signs and guides and also addressing unequal policies when it comes to management and curatorial […]

  10. […] such as restrooms, using inclusive language in their information signs and guides and also addressing unequal policies when it comes to management and curatorial […]

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