Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Woman's Work

I was one of about 100 women (and one man) in the audience for a presentation on Women in Leadership at this year's American Association of Museums' conference. Central to the discussion was the persistence of the glass ceiling in the museum field despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the museum workforce is female (and they're the majority of museum volunteers and visitors, too).

Can you believe that the expression 'the glass ceiling' dates back to 1986? (See below for more on that.)

Certainly among high profile museums in the US, the CEOs are male by a ratio of nearly three to one. The tables turn dramatically in mid-sized and small museums, where female directors are routinely found.

The session's panelists agreed that women at the top have a real impact on organizational performance. So far, it hasn't been enough to encourage mid-level women to move up. In fact, many women leave their positions within five years due to lack of career paths within their institutions, lack of mentoring opportunities, and lack of organizational succession planning that could address their long-term professional development needs.

There are many intertwined factors that make glass ceiling discussions complex: salary and pay equity, work-life balance, the scope and content of leadership skills, the methods institutions use to choose their leaders, and the lack of data to inform and measure the field's forward movement.

The lack of gender diversity among museum leaders -- as is true with the absence of any type of diversity within our institutions -- does have a real, consequential impact on institutional relevancy and sustainability. This is the message for our field and our times.

A recent article in the provides this background on the 'glass ceiling':
The expression “the glass ceiling” first appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 1986 and was then used in the title of an academic article by A.M. Morrison and others published in 1987. Entitled “Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Can Women Reach the Top of America’s Largest Corporations?”, it looked at the persistent failure of women to climb as far up the corporate ladder as might be expected from their representation in the working population as a whole. The idea behind the expression was that a transparent barrier, a glass ceiling, blocked them.
Photo: small group women diverse by bioexhibit

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