Can We Break the Glass Ceiling of Arts Leadership?

And the advantages of being a woman arts administrator? Image by the Guerrilla Girls

In each art and cultural nonprofit I have worked for, whether a museum, film, artist services or art education organization, the staff has been overwhelmingly female.  However, the directors and heads of departments have been predominantly male.  The clear gender imbalance seems almost too mundane to point out, but for a sector that prides itself on creativity, new ideas, and respecting different viewpoints, the lack of women in leadership roles in the nonprofit arts has become a serious point of contention for me. While there are important and influential women in high positions in arts administration, such as Emily Rafferty, the first woman President of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Vishaka Desai, President and CEO of the Asia Society, women are not equally represented at senior level positions or on the boards of arts organizations.

Certainly, this has little to do with women’s qualifications for the job. In terms of higher education, women have eclipsed men. According to the New York Times, as of September 2011, “Women earned about two-thirds of the graduate certificates awarded in 2009-10, as well as 60 percent of the master’s degrees and 52 percent of the doctorates,” though the article does not mention specifically which fields. 

Protest in 1970 for equal pay in Detroit. How much has changed?

Gender inequality is not ignored in the arts world, but the underlying causes behind it, and the effect that has on the structure of arts organizations, is not deeply discussed.  I would like the field to directly address these questions: why are so many directors men when a majority of women work in the arts in entry and middle management-level positions and have strong professional experience and education? And how does this impact arts organizations’ capacity for innovation and dynamic change?

Linda Norris on her blog the Uncataloged Museum posed a similar the question with a blunt sense of humor. She asked, “What does it take to be an art museum director?” The answer she found was, “Evidently, be a white man!” She conducted informal research by monitoring the Art Museum Partnership Facebook page, where new directors for art museums are announced, from August to November of 2011. She found that, “Of the 15 directors named, only 4 were women, that’s just 26 percent… Admittedly, this is a highly unscientific survey, but revealing nonetheless.”

These issues are further explored in the “Women in arts and cultural heritage” video from the UK-based Creative Choices that was released in 2010.  The video highlights the challenges facing women who pursue careers in arts management. These frustrations will sound familiar to readers no matter what their gender: low pay, burnout from balancing long hours at work with other life commitments, frustration generated from passionately pursuing a chosen career and finding few opportunities for advancement.

The video underlines the importance of role models for women who are emerging as leaders in the arts as a solution to this problem. However, the solutions it proposes to address the lack of women in leadership positions are technical: it advocates the implementation of  policies that make a workplace more friendly to a variety of lifestyle needs, such as flextime, job sharing, and paid maternity leave.

Are we past this?

Underlying assumptions about gender and leadership run deep in the social fabric and are hard to shake, even in a “progressive” field like the arts. These assumptions include the idea that women working in the arts have a partner to support them financially, are less ambitious career-wise, will leave the workforce when they have children, and are not as serious or as savvy about financial, technical and legal matters as their male counterparts. Given these ideas, which are perpetuated by people of all genders, hiring a woman for a top job is perceived as a risk, even when they have proven professional and academic track records.

I think those who want to embrace innovation in leadership practice must ask how expanding our definition of who is, and can be, a powerful leader can help address gender imbalance in arts organizations. Two practical solutions to address the dearth of women in leadership arts positions are: Changing the boards of arts organizations  and implementing mentoring programs to cultivate emerging women leaders.   A 2008 article in the Guardian  reported that whether or not women are in leadership positions in the arts depends of the size, scope and type of organization. It emphasized the make up of the board as being a key factor in the make up of an organization’s leadership, as many nonprofit boards are still predominantly men who tend to favor hiring other men.  The message is clear: changing the make up of the board can change who gets promoted into a leadership role.

Men protest for equal pay in Australia, 1969. Equitable opportunities would benefit organizations at all levels.

Mentoring is another way to break through the glass ceiling of arts leadership and make organizations more hospitable to women leaders. ArtTable, a networking organization for women working the arts, formed in 1981 on the idea that a strong network of women arts leaders can help counter the attitudes of the “old boys club.” All arts organizations can support mentoring and networking opportunities for those at entry and middle management levels, as well as at the board level to create a organization that cultivates and recognizes a wider variety of candidates as emerging leaders. A mentor can get to know a younger person’s ambitions and help nurture them, while providing guidance on how to acquire the skills to make those ambitions become a reality. In addition, mentors could be advocates for their mentees and help open up doors for career advancement that might otherwise be closed to them.

Mentorship and including more women on nonprofit boards certainly is not the only answer to address the society wide problem of sexism, but they could be a start. Gender inequity in leadership and the lack of forward thinking solutions to address it extends far beyond the art world. Addressing it fully will be part of a societal shift towards recognizing an array of leadership qualities and qualifications.

What do you think?

  • Are organizations that embrace innovation, change and fresh ways of thinking about their practice are also more equitable?
  • How do you think addressing gender inequity can make arts organizations more innovative?
  • How must the nonprofit arts world change to address the gender imbalance in leadership?
  • And in your experience, are mentoring programs and a change in the make-up of the board part of the solution?

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Eleanor Whitney is a writer, educator, arts administrator and musician raised in Maine and living in Brooklyn, New York. She has also worked at the Rubin Museum of Art as the Coordinator of Educational Resources, the Brooklyn Museum as the Academic Programs Coordinator, and at POV/American Documentary as a development assistant. She is completing her Master of Public Administration degree at Baruch College and received her bachelor’s degree from Eugene Lang College in Cultural Studies and Education.

  • Brenda Mathiesen

    Even in the more prominent art venues, it is reported the lack of diversity:
    It may not be all the leadership, but in all aspects of the business.

    In smaller communities, we do see women taking on the role of the leadership and it is a lifeblood for the community. I am trying to break into the leadership, and those roles are tough in smaller communities. They are few and far between, and they where lots of hats.

    I am glad fo you providing a glimpse to this. I don’t want the advantage just because I am female, but to be compared merely on qualifications.

    • Eleanor Whitney, Blogging Fellow

      Brenda, absolutely. I think we slowly see leadership in all types of communities and organizations become more equitable, but it does take a long time. I couldn’t agree more that the conversation is about equity and based on qualifications and experience, not special treatment.

  • Natalie

    This is interesting for me. I’m a youngish (28 year old) marketing manager at a relatively small non-profit theatre/presenting facility (718 seats). To be honest, it hadn’t even occured to me that my way to Executive Directorship might be more difficult because I’m a woman. I mean, it ACTUALLY hadn’t occured to me. What I have noticed however is that certain bosses or presenters have a tendency to treat me like their daughter. They call me kiddo, or honey, and I’ve actually had my head patted. Now, I don’t think that they intend to be condescending, and I know that they respect the work I do. Furthermore, I have never felt any of this to be sexual in any way. But would a 60 year old man pat the head of a 28 year old man and call him kiddo? No. It would be laughable. And it IS condescending, regardless of the intent behind it. So how does that affect me when I am up for a promotion against a man the same age as me? Is that other candidate inherently considered more “adult” or more “capable” if a man (or a woman) is hiring?

    Our current Executive Director is a woman in her 40’s who has two children. She is extremely capable, very creative, and the best boss I’ve ever worked for. Part of what I’ve noticed is that she has a heightened awareness of work/life balance: she asks a lot of us and has high standards, but trusts that we will get our work done if we need to take time for personal matters. She did pass along to me however that when she was interviewing for the position, the board members “joked” with her: “You don’t have anymore plans for children, right?”. Would a man be asked this in a job interview? I think not.

    In the arts we have a unique culture of long hours, total devotion and a “catch-all” attitude to work. Sometimes I feel like I will have to choose between work and a family. I’ve already chosen work over a few relationships. However, every time that I’ve done so, I feel like I’ve done the right thing. I guess I just have to be bull-headed enough to not take no for an answer, and figure it out each step of the way. As to the solution? I’m not sure. I do know that when I’m the E.D. I’ll be making sure other women are coming up with me.

    • Eleanor Whitney, Blogging Fellow

      Natalie, thank you so much for sharing your experiences. When I started to think about this piece I almost couldn’t believe that it had to be written, because I always thought that the arts were more open to diversity in leadership than other professions. I’m glad to help keep the dialogue going because I think the more we talk about how assumptions about gender (as well as race, class and culture, of course) inform our ideas about leadership and innovation the more we can work towards creating a work culture that nurtures a more diverse leadership on the board and staff level. It sounds like the Executive Director at your organization is doing exactly this and I think it’s also up to as as younger, emerging leaders to talk about these issues and ensure we pave the way for the generation after us and work on being role models and commit to mentoring. I also think that arts organizations as a whole should rethink their HR practices in terms of the “long hours and total devotion,” idea, which I wrote about in an earlier entry on the ArtsFwd blog. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

  • Stephanie Hanson

    Eleanor – Thank you for writing this fantastic piece. It resonates with me personally on so many levels, and also is the exact kind of thinking I believe our field needs now. I find that for a sector so rooted in diversity, innovation, and community, on the whole we are very anti-change for how we operate and structure our organizations. While an arts organization does need to carry a certain level of professionalism and business acumen in order to succeed and make a case for itself, I also am not convinced that we as the managers/staff of those organizations need to sacrifice our own healthy work/life balance.

    I do feel like I see many women in leadership roles on boards of directors, but think the mentorship piece is one that could help with diversity on all levels. I always admire women who are in leadership positions that also manage to balance a strong family life – and tend to seek those individuals out as my own mentors.

    There are many publications that connect diversity to innovation, and I certainly believe that organizations with more diversity and flexibility will experience less turn over, and leverage higher levels of creativity from their employees. This, in turn, connects to the larger leadership transitions in our field – which is a big issue for emerging arts leaders. We see so many emerging leaders feeling forced to leave the field – because of low salaries, high stress, and no perceived room for growth within their own organizations. This is a problem that also needs to be addressed.

    With more conversations like this one, I am confident that slowly but surely we will begin to chip away at the old block of “how things are always done”. I also believe there are many opportunities for women to practice their leadership skills – no matter what position they are in. When you begin to envision yourself as a leader, positions and opportunities begin to open up.

    • Eleanor Whitney, Blogging Fellow

      Stephanie, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I also think that your idea of practicing leadership no matter what position you are in is a very strong one and it’s so important to seek out opportunities to demonstrate leadership. I am struck by the unwillingness that I see at the top of a lot of organizations to recognize a variety of leadership styles, as well as that very idea – that leadership can happen in any position. I think that mentoring is a way for an organization to show they are invested in the long term and in an employee as a professional and a person. This goes beyond gender, of course. I couldn’t agree more about the need to find a balance in our field between work in life in order to promote sustainability and knowledge not getting lost when people leave the field. Thank you for joining the dialogue and I hope that by continuing to push these issues and bring up these points we will advance, even if the progress is slow.

  • I’m glad to see other women in the arts recognizing and addressing this issue. Here is a blog post I wrote about it a while back:

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