Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Open Thread: Is the Gender Imbalance in the Arts a Problem?

Note: This is a post about gender diversity. I feel strongly that there are huge issues with racial and ethnic diversity in museums and arts organizations that deserve a million more posts. I don't know if gender diversity deserves more posts. That's why I wrote this.

Last week, I spoke at three conferences. One was a conference on risk-taking for librarians. One was a conference on pushing our practice in art museums. And one was a local TEDx. The first two had something in common that the last one didn't. Any guesses?

In library- and museum-land, the participants were 80-90% women. At TEDx, the mix was 50/50.

It took me awhile to catch on to the gender divide in museums, arts organizations, and libraries. I was an electrical engineering student (1% women), then worked at NASA (10% women), and then slowly slid from science museums (about 50% women) to history and art museums (60-80%, depending on who you ask). Even the museums I worked in with a fairly equivalent gender balance were completely out-of-whack when you looked at departments. Exhibits, technology, security, and senior management were majority male. Education and programs were female central.

At first, I reveled in working in progressively more female-engaged environments after my engineering background. But running a museum with 100% female full-time staff and 95% female interns has made me struggle with the obvious disparity. When we have new jobs or internships open up, men represent less than 5% of applicants. We have good male representation as volunteers, trustees, and visitors, but we're lousy on staff. We have 0.75 full-time equivalent men between a contract preparator, graphic designer, and visitor services staff member. We can't even rate a whole guy.

Judging from statistics in a few research studies on museum workers (and the obvious visual data at any museum or library conference excepting tech-oriented ones), this imbalance is extreme but not atypical. It gets even worse if you look at the future of the field. AAM has noted that museum studies graduate programs are "80% white and 80% female." It's not quite as bad as my 99% male electrical engineering class, but it's getting there.

This is a problem. Without this most basic kind of diversity on staff, people make myopic decisions that are biased towards certain audience types. Just as a male-dominated tech industry created a hugely celebrated device that women thought sounded like a menstrual management product (the iPad), a female-dominated museum and library industry leads to a narrow set of preconceptions when it comes to program development and design. I've had plenty of meetings where we had to remind ourselves that we couldn't just create craft activities for women and no there would not be hearts on the walls in the Love exhibition. We consult community advisors on a regular basis to compensate for our gender diversity (and other) deficiencies and ensure that our programming is meaningful and non-exclusionary for men. It's a challenge on a daily basis to run an organization for our whole community when our staff represents half at most.

But, and here's where it gets tricky... how BIG a problem is this gender imbalance? When we talk about other kinds of diversity in the museum workforce--racial, ethnic, socioeconomic--it's clear that the problem is serious. Many museums and other arts organizations are seen as instruments of an elitist, white culture that systematically excludes people of color (e.g. this post). True diversity on staff leads to the exposure and deconstruction of discriminatory practices that prevent our organizations from feeling truly relevant and open to diverse community members.

It's not as clear to me that this same issue applies when talking about men, especially white men, who are not victims of systematic discrimination. When it comes to fields like engineering, the reason that people are so energized about increasing minority participation is twofold:
  1. Many minorities (women and racial/ethnic minorities) receive constant harmful messages about their inadequacy when it comes to that may prevent them from pursuing passions in math and science. This is perceived by some as deeply unfair. It takes active intervention and investment to reverse this systematic discrimination and bias.
  2. Engineering careers come with economic opportunity that can move people up socio-economically and advance national GDP/innovation. Engineering jobs can enable minority citizens to achieve more, thus balancing out some inequity and cultivating more overall wealth. 
Do these same arguments apply in fields like the non-profit arts? These jobs are low-paying, economically unstable, and highly competitive. They are not seen (unfortunately) as essential to generating significant personal or community wealth and value. And I don't know that there is a systematic gender bias preventing men from pursuing careers in arts or education. I've never heard of a man who was told that art might be too "hard" for him as my female college roommate was told about mechanical engineering. There may be a gender representation issue in museums, but is there an equity issue? I'm not sure.

I would really, really like to work with more men. I would love for them to be interested and to be represented. But I don't know where the point is at which men are feeling deterred from their interests in pursuing museum careers and what I can do about it. I don't know if I should worry about this.

Maybe it's OK to have some fields that are gender-imbalanced as long as minority voices have a role in program development and production. Maybe it's great that there's a field where women can take the lead. I'm proud that our institution went from having a male director and all-female staff to a female director and all-female staff--at least girlpower goes all the way to the top here. There are plenty of other content and media industries that don't have female domination--our power in museums could be a balancing salve in the bigger picture. We can and do create superb programming for our whole community, with the same implicit deficiencies of any organization that lacks diversity.

Or maybe it's terrible that men are slowly opting out of museum work. Maybe it means they will slowly opt out of cultural institutions altogether and perceive them as irrelevant to their lives. I know from talking to friends who work in ballet that it is indeed possible for a whole genre of art to be seen as "for women."

What do you think? Is the gender imbalance causing problems for arts workers, visitors, or society? How does it affect you? What should we do about it?
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