Washington’s wave of female museum leaders marks a sea change for a field that has traditionally been led by white men. But it also promises progress in another thorny area: the long-standing and systemic gender pay gap.
Women comprise the majority of museum employees, but in most cases they earn less than their male colleagues. This is true in Washington, where several new female directors of Smithsonian museums were hired at significantly less than a male counterpart, despite running much larger institutions. And it is true across the country.
Only one woman — Feldman — leads one of the country’s top 10 art museums when ranked by budget, and only four women are included in the top 25, according to a Washington Post review. In 2017, the most recent year for which tax returns are available, female directors at the top 25 largest museums earned on average about 76 cents for every dollar paid to a male director. That is in line with the national average for most professions: The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that women earn 74 to 80 percent of what their male counterparts are paid.
Thanks to the U.S. women’s soccer team’s gender discrimination lawsuit, the issue of pay equity is being debated in living rooms and board rooms across the nation. Like last year’s sexual harassment reckoning, the related issues of gender diversity and pay equity affect a broad swath of American life, from entertainment and sports to Congress and Fortune 500 companies. Pay equity has been discussed with increasing fervor in museum circles in recent years, but with more women in power, it has a chance to be resolved, museum leaders say.
“We should not rely on excuses — that this is happening in the broader world — we should be leading,” American Alliance of Museums President Laura Lott said. “We’ve made some small gains, but it’s not enough.”
The pay gap was front and center at the alliance’s annual conference in May, where several thousand museum professionals sounded off at planned sessions and after hours at hotel bars. Kimberly Rose Drew, author and creator of the popular Tumblr blog “Black Contemporary Art,” sent shock waves through the audience at her keynote address, when she disclosed her $80,000 salary as social media manager at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of a critique about the museum having a “comprehensive diversity program” that failed to tackle pay inequity.
“Another thing that really motivated me in my last two years at the Met was my salary. And not just my salary . . . but also the outgoing salary of the person who had my job two years before I did, who also just so happened to be a white man, and why I never met that salary [$85,000 in 2016], ever, in my time at the Met,” she said. “That, for me, became such an obsession, and a real thing that made me feel angry . . . that I could be doing this work to the best of my ability, showing up, showing out, but still there was just a very small margin that I, for whatever reason, was never worth.”
Drew’s broadside sparked the creation of a crowdsourced spreadsheet of jobs and salaries that had topped 3,000 anonymous entries within weeks of its launch. The spreadsheet highlighted a hunger for change, said Michelle Epps, president of the national Emerging Museum Professionals network, a female-dominated membership organization that has been agitating for salary transparency.
“To me, it was really gratifying to see that it came up organically,” Epps said.
The field’s large membership organizations continue to spotlight the problem with research and reports. The EMP’s grass-roots campaign to mandate salary ranges in job postings has gained traction. The Association of Art Museum Directors last year decided to make its long-standing salary survey available free on its website.
Taken together, these efforts to increase transparency show a field attempting to fix a difficult issue by removing the secrecy that reinforces its inequities. Shining a light won’t solve the issue completely, officials say, but it represents a positive start.
“It is a systemic problem, a problem of unconscious bias, a problem of undervaluing the unpaid labor that studies show women share a greater burden of,” Lott said. “These are great forces, but we are not powerless to address them.”
Feldman, who declined to disclose her current salary, thinks the country “has turned a corner” in correcting that unconscious bias.
“The nation is recognizing the potential of leadership of women. The number of women in Congress, more women corporate leaders. There are examples out there, separate from my appointment, that indicate a huge change,” she said in a recent interview.
There’s plenty of evidence — both anecdotal and data-based — to support her view. In the small club of Smithsonian museum directors, women have gone from distinct minority 10 years ago to slightly outnumbering the men, thanks in part to former secretary David J. Skorton, who made diversity a focus on his four-year tenure, which ended last month. Five of the nine directors Skorton hired are women.
Nationally, more men than women hold director positions, although women are gaining, according to a recent AAMD report. In 2016, women represented 48 percent of directors, compared to 43 percent in 2013. Women leaders are concentrated in smaller institutions, the study found.
Feldman has watched as an informal group of women leaders within the art museum association has grown from about five members, when she started two decades ago, to more than 50. Periodically, she said, the members discuss whether the field’s progress has made the group obsolete.
“We continue to meet because one of the topics is compensation,” she said.
According to the 2017 National Museum Salary Survey from the AAM, women, who hold two-thirds of the full-time jobs in the industry, were paid 82 cents for every dollar earned by their male colleagues. Pay gaps were found at just about every position, from entry-level assistant curators to chief curator positions, where the median salary for male chief curators was $71,050, compared to $55,550 for women. The survey found most male registrars and collections managers were paid more than women, as were male directors of education.
Despite its recent spate of diverse appointments, the Smithsonian has an uneven record when it comes pay equity for museum leaders. Most Smithsonian workers are federal employees subject to standard pay grades that compensate men and women equally. But the directors and other senior executives are paid with private funds outside the federal wage system. This provides the Smithsonian with the flexibility needed to attract top candidates, but it contributes to an even more pronounced gender gap.
Chase Robinson was hired last year to run the Freer/Sackler Asian art museum. His $425,000 starting salary far eclipses that of Stephanie Stebich, who was hired in 2017 at a salary of $250,000 to run the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Hartig, who this year took over the National Museum of American History for $300,000. Both of those museums dwarf the Freer in terms of staff, collection size and annual visitors.
Stofan was hired in 2018 to run another large Smithsonian entity, the National Air and Space Museum. Officials won’t disclose her exact salary but have said that it is in the $280,000 and $350,000 range that most museum directors earn.
The Smithsonian’s highest paid director is Melissa Chiu, who earned $430,000 last year to run the Hirshhorn, the modern and contemporary art museum, according to the Smithsonian. Her salary supports the AAMD’s findings that contemporary art museum directors earn the most in the art museum field.
All of the directors declined to comment on their salaries for this story. A Smithsonian spokeswoman said salaries are not determined by the size of the museum but are based on marketplace benchmarking.
“I’m not going to comment on any individual person’s salary. I’m not going to do it,” Skorton said when asked about Robinson’s compensation relative to that of Hartig and Stofan. All three were Skorton appointees.
“We’re aware of the distance we have to climb to reach equity and inclusion,” Skorton added. “I’m proud of the progress we have made, and I’m disappointed we didn’t get even further.”
Ownership of that progress now passes to Skorton’s successor, Lonnie Bunch III, who, as the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, made diversity and equity central to the museum’s staff and board.
Zannie Giraud Voss, director of the DataArts at Southern Methodist University and one of the authors of the 2017 gender gap report, said the collection and analysis of data is a significant step toward fixing the problem.
“It has to be the cornerstone, having information, rather than a general sense of things, a gut feeling,” Voss said, noting that the arts don’t have a strong record for collecting data. “Perhaps we weren’t always wanting to dig into the details, to be truthful with ourselves.”
May’s annual AAM conference showed museum employees are hungry for information. Epps, the president of the emerging professionals network — a group with some 13,000 members who are predominantly female — said salary data is critical to career planning and growth.
“The museum field needs to be professionalized,” Epps said, adding that many fields budget for the position rather than the candidate. Salary “should be set in the budget, and you should stick with. To pay somebody less because you can, that kind of deal hunting, when it is less transparent it is more insidious.”
The Association of Children’s Museums and the American Association of State and Local History require organizations using their job sites to include salary information on job postings. Others, including the AAM’s job board, do not.
Some museum leaders predict the next generation will continue to push the field toward data collection and analysis, which they say will increase transparency, diversity and equity. The AAMD gender gap reports show this evolution has already started. There were 30 changes of leadership among the 181 museums that participated in both 2013 and 2016 surveys, according to the most recent report. In 2013, women held four of those 30 positions, and three years later that number climbed to 13. But nearly all of those gains were at museums with budgets under $15 million.
The gender gap studies were member-driven initiatives, said AAMD’s chief administrator, Alison Wade, who noted that the organization’s membership reached 50 percent women for the first time this year. “That’s a pretty big deal,” Wade said. “As in many other fields, there’s a generational change coming and that is driving some of the conversation.”