Space Invaders: museum women leaders conference

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Keynote speaker Nirmal Puwar tells it like it is

Glass ceilings, glass pyramids, glass elevators, sticky floors and the greatest human rights abuse on the planet.

Friday 18 March 2016

After (ironically) sorting out the emergency childcare and pack lunches it was off to the IWM for what promised to be an exciting conference. Space Invaders explored issues around (the lack of) women leaders in the museum sector and aimed to ‘kick start public debate about gender inequality in museum leadership’.

As soon as I arrived it felt different from other conferences. Aside from two men, the room was full of women. The atmosphere felt warmer, more friendly and – dare I say it? – more inclusive than usual. The tone was a little more informal, conversational – but certainly no less rigorous for it. It felt a bit like I knew everyone in the room (actually, I did know quite a lot of them but that’s not the point!).

Among many highlights…

Keynote speaker Nirmal Puwar showed us ‘women tend to be judged on experience, whereas men are judged on potential’. They are not seen to ‘naturally hold leadership skills – they are under hyper-surveillance’.

Nicola Lacey reminded us that work/life balance is more of a limiting factor for women than men, and of the importance of role models and mentors.

Mark Carnall asked ‘where are all the men? (In the boardroom?!)

Emma Green brought home the importance of being active – inclusion, not just ‘equality and diversity’. And intersectionality – the untangle-able mix of gender, culture, class, sexuality, age…

And we all fell a little bit in love with Shami Chakrabarti (or maybe that was just me). With her hypnotic voice, wit and astonishing astuteness she had us all eating out of her hand. Kicking off with the news that the government had finally abolished the ‘tampon tax’, she went on to remind us it is still not 100 years since British women (over 30) were allowed to vote, and to declare gender inequality the greatest human rights abuse on the planet. She called for change now – ‘if not now, when? If not us, who?’- with solidarity as our most powerful tool.

The conference raised questions…

  • Are we stepping back or being pushed back – are women just too sensible to take on the hell and the hassle of the top jobs?
  • Should job applications be anonymous?
  • How are women represented in museum collections?
  • Should all government funded museums set targets to diversify their boards?

And answers…

  • Solidarity
  • Intersectionality
  • Inclusion
  • Find and use your networks
  • Look outside the sector
  • Gather and use data
  • Use, become and be mentors

And should all government funded museums set targets to diversify their boards? 90% said YES!

A great and important conference all round. I hope it will lead to action.

I left with renewed vigour for my own personal museum crusade – to get more women into displays. Often hidden in our collections, we must dig deep to find their voices, the traces of their lives and work they left behind. Interpret them. Make the invisible visible. Make them shine.

And to smash the patriarchy – of course.

#MuseumAgender