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Smashing the glass ceiling, or not?

The top chairs are not reserved exclusively by men – though the numbers remain out of kilter – exposure helps a shift in attitude.

Sunday 8 March is International Women’s Day. While that is a moment to celebrate the advancement of women’s place within contemporary society, it is also a time to call to measure the reality of those claims of equality in the work sector.

ArtsHub spoke with some of Australia’s leading arts professionals in our museum sector  – who happen to be women – to survey the state of the “glass ceiling”.

While there was a consensus that the balance remains out of kilter in the top seats, evidence suggests that it is shifting at lower ranks. But in that there lies a problem. Is it a lack of confidence from women themselves to advance their careers or are the same old arguments – such as the impact of motherhood – creating stumbling blocks that will never change?

ArtsHub spoke with Kim McKay, the first woman to take the top job at the Australian Museum, and who is powerfully driving a $7.2 million redevelopment. She has the right idea. ‘When mail comes address to Mr. Kim McKay it lands in that ‘special round filing try’ – the bin!’ she said, implying that first we need to move beyond the presumption.

The dynamic Rose Hiscock, Director Powerhouse: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS), who is also shepherding her organisation through tremendous change, suggested: ‘We should turn to the performing arts sector for inspiration. Performing arts companies are probably more nimble and agile than museums and galleries and maybe women have thrived in this environment.’

Women head up directorships of two of the five primary cultural institutions under the NSW government, with the appointment of Janet Carding as the new Director of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) – the first of our State art museums to appoint a woman since Betty Churcher held positions at AGWA and NGA in the 1980s and 90s, respectively – announced this week.

‘Evidence would suggest we have a problem’, said Hiscock. ‘Of more than 20 directors in the Council of Australasian Museum Directors (CAMD), only five are women.’

Tamara Winikoff, Executive Director NAVA, who had played a pivotal role in advocating artists right and lobbying government, said: ‘There is still the tacit assumption that only men have the skills required to do these jobs. Asking myself what these gender specific skills might be, leads me to having naughty thoughts.’

Ursula Sullivan, of the successful commercial gallery Sullivan + Strumpf, describes it as the ‘elephant in the room.’

These women are not alone at the top. Louise Herron (CEO of Sydney Opera House), Josephine Ridge (Creative Director, Melbourne Festival) Kay Campbell (Executive Director ACCA, Suzanne Miller (CEO Queensland Museum Network), Libby Christie (Executive Director, Australian Ballet), Daryl Karp, (Director, Museum of Australian Democracy), Robyn Ayres (Executive Director, Arts Law Centre of Australia), Wendy Martin (Perth Festival Director), and the list grows in joining them.

However, Sullivan acknowledged that women have a strong presence across the wider arts sector.

Kirsten Paisley runs the highly successful Shepparton Art Museum and is spearheading its redevelopment. There are also female directors at Bendigo Art Gallery, Benalla Art Gallery, Murray Bridge Gallery, Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery, Cairns Regional Gallery, Rockhampton Art Gallery, Bendigo Art Gallery, Tweed Regional Gallery, and I am sure others worthy of that role.

‘It would be great to see one of these women take the lead at a state level, but they are quite powerful regardless,’ observed Sullivan. ‘Lisa Slade at AGSA, for example, is an extremely significant and influential contributor to the industry, as was Julie Ewington and Maud Page at QAGOMA, and Suhanya Raffel at AGNSW. Whilst these women take the 2-I-C (second in charge) role, they do tend to be more directly connected to artists and the community, and I can’t help but think that is actually equally, if not more influential in our community than the broader requirements of the directors, who are required to raise donation funds, rather than work with artists.

McKay reiterated: ‘The branch heads in my team – near half of them are women!’

The question remains, ‘Why don’t they move into the top leadership roles? Is it because they are overlooked or do they lack the confidence to put themselves forward? Why are the headhunters that all these institutions use not encouraging them?

Last year the Association of Art Museum Directors in the United Sates released the report, The Gender Gap in Art Museum Directorships, illustrating that women run just a quarter of the biggest art museums in the United States and Canada. ArtsHub took a comparative look at gender parity across the wider Australian sector, and more recently we asked Courtney Johnston, Director, The Dowse Art Museum, what was the gender climate in New Zealand.

‘Over here we’re seeing women leading major art institutions – Auckland Art Gallery, Christchurch Art Gallery, City Gallery Wellington. Many regional galleries and museums, such as The Dowse, Waikato Museum of Art and History, and most of the university art galleries and artist-run spaces are led by women. However, in our metropolitan museums across Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury and Dunedin it’s a different story, said Johnston.

‘I think if the question is, “Are women holding the most influential and best-paid roles in the sector”, the answer would probably be no,’ she added.

What needs to change; what can we change?

‘I always like to look at statistics to underscore a point, and they speak volumes,’ said McKay. Numbers can be powerful advocacy tools. It is something Winikoff has become masterly at in her role. At the top of her list of change is:

1. Equal pay

‘(Australia Council commissioned studies showed that two thirds of visual artists are women but women in the arts earned on average 57% less than men in 2002, though by 2010 the gap was narrowing to 38%,’ cited Winikoff.

‘For most of us working in non-government parts of the arts industry, salaries are way below those for comparable roles in other industries. This is not true of the top jobs. I’d love someone to compare the male and female salaries in the major institutions,’ encouraged Winikoff.

‘The statistics being published by the Countess blog show that although the majority of art school graduates are female (65%), their representation in major exhibitions, biennales and art fairs is vastly outnumbered by men. This is also the case with art sales through commercial galleries. There can be no excuse for this. It’s where positive discrimination should be used to get balance.’

Sullivan echoed Winikoff’s call, from a position within the art market: ‘We are regressing in terms of the number of female artists that are permitted to be successful.. Perhaps we all thought, “great! feminism happened so that’s that one solved.” But it is incredible to look at the statistics of female participation in major museum exhibitions and how pathetic it really is. It is a really big issue and is very deep seated, especially considering the number of women that go to art college.’

2. Bolster lagging confidence

For McKay the problem was also driven by a lack of confidence. ‘Women have to learn to not downplay their skills and abilities. We see it in all sectors. Women are always reticent to state their goals and ambitions and to make them known to people in power. They need to learn to express their worth and ask for what they want.’

Johnston said women need to take the plunge and to, ‘stop waiting until they think they’re “ready” to move into a leadership role. If we think there’s an issue around the advancement of women in the sector, then the first step needs to be personal activism.’

All the women ArtsHub spoke to agreed that women tend to be more comfortable – prefer – working in smaller institutions. Macgregor questioned whether: ‘The nature of these top jobs may also be an issue – more bureaucratic, more about fundraising and dealing with boards, less engagement with art and artists.’

She continued: ‘The gender balance of gallery boards is also poor which may affect the recruitment process for directors.’

3. More board representation

In a trend that translates outside of the arts sector into corporate Australia, Kay Campbell the Executive Director of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne told ArtsHub journalist Tara Watson that it is the system not so much the people that are at fault and this will change with time.

‘It’s not unlike corporate boards – there’s a lot of entrenched thinking on the part of trustees and headhunters who tend to revert to type when recruiting. They set down a template based on who’s held the post before, who is already running state galleries elsewhere and who they are comfortable with. And that’s a man every time,’ said Campbell.

Macgregor said that women are ‘overlooked for the top roles and boards in just the same way as they are in other sectors so the issues to change that situation are the same.’

There are exceptions. McKay said she was on the board of the Australian Museum for two years before transitioning into the position of its Director. Catherine Livingstone, who McKay described asthe most successful business women in country’, as Chairman of Telstra Corporation (since 2009), was appointed President of Museum Trustees in 2012.

The appointment of great women across industry can help drive change from a board level.

Hiscock said that a new model implemented at MAAS has also driven a shift in culture.

‘We have introduced a collaborative leadership model. In this model, the executive team share responsibility and authority. The MAAS team are funny, sassy, smart, experienced and keen to experiment. Our team is 4/5 women. However I think it is the spirit rather than gender of the team that is making a difference,’ said Hiscock.

Generational change is inevitable in leadership. Each generation brings a different focus. I think we are becoming less traditional as a sector, as we keep pace with our audiences,’ she added.

4. Mentoring programs

Part of a shift in business models is valuing the role of mentoring. Hiscock puts it flatly:Nurture ambition.’

‘This year CAMD will introduce a mentoring program to address this issue. I’m quite passionate about finding, nurturing and promoting the next generation of women to lead museums,’ said Hiscock.

McKay is working with Hiscock to realising vision for the Council, with a view to get it up and running later this year. ‘The word networking is also about getting to be known, to get your “worth” out there’ said McKay.

And when you do make it into those top positions, Johnston said: ‘Start looking for how you can support others (men and women).’

‘I would certainly advocate for more collegiate relationships and mentoring – there are many different aspects to the art world and understanding all of the nuances of each is hard,’ said Sullivan. ‘Joanna (Strumpf) and I have both mentored young women and can see how that really helps people move forward in life. The importance of helping each other cannot be underestimated.’

5. Better parental systems

We simply don’t have adequate systems to assist women returning from parental leave,’ said Hiscock.

‘I recall a conversation in my workplace: the young women in my office were chatting and observed that our Executive women had no kids, or grown up kids. They laughed in a resigned way and agreed that they were unlikely to become Executives. This conversation only happened a few years ago and makes me really sad. These young women are smart and strong and in charge of their lives. They should be leading institutions and in the near future.’

McKay was quick to admit that she wouldn’t be in the position she holds if she had taken time out to have children.

While such points sound so “un-politically correct” in today’s climate of feminism they sadly remain true.

Which begs the question, why smaller institutions? Is it a confidence issue or do ‘top jobs’ lack the flexibility that women still need more than men in relation to raising a family?

Top image: Stock image: Dreamstime.com

First published on ArtsHub 4 March 2015.

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