Who is here to smash the patriarchy? YES I AM! The Guardian recently published Yasmin Khan’s excellent article about inequality for women in the museum sector, and the amazing Space Invaders conference which brought together about 130 women (and 2 brave men) to discuss it at the Imperial War Museum on 18 March 2016. It was without doubt one of the most amazing conferences I have been to. Intelligent, warm, angry, cooperative, inclusive, a challenge. I loved cheering with Shami Chakrabarti that the day on which it was held was ‘tampon tax day’.
It is somewhat ironic that writing this post has taken various iterations before I have felt it publishable. The first time I wrote it (on the train on the way home), I was angry. I talked about the time I was called an ‘utter twerp’ by a male director, the problematic use of the so-called ‘Bradford factor’ to monitor sick leave (look it up – and you’ll see it automatically penalises women), the museum’s collection itself being one of boys’ toys with barely a woman featuring… Paragraph after paragraph. I am still angry. But my anger is more general now, and it makes me want to smash that patriarchy more than ever.
I think comments from the initial talk by Dr Nirmal Puwar were what resonated with me most strongly. How I identified with thinking about the threatening and disorienting capacity of a woman leader. We have to constantly prove our ability: we need to make our leadership skills visible in a way that a man simply does not do. We are made to feel small, child-like – we can only do our jobs because of others. We exist under a burden of doubt, imposter syndrome, a feeling that our authority is misplaced, that we will be harshly judged and criticised. A performance. Sometimes, I have felt this infantilism very strongly. And sometimes, I am glad to say, I have not felt it at all, but have felt respected and valued as a strong, creative, independent woman with ideas, and in a much more equal place.
I don’t want this post to be entirely negative. There is much to be said, for example, for having strong female role models: this is something to have come out strongly from the conference and something in which I believe passionately. The value of surrounding yourself with women, or with those from own own intersections, whatever these may be. Solidarity. I have been fortunate. My AMA mentor, a highly regarded female director, is someone I regularly share thoughts with, and I have a variety of strong intelligent passionate women leaders (both in ‘official’ leadership roles, as well as those who lead from ‘elsewhere’) within my networks. At the last gallery in which I worked, though I didn’t realise at the time, I would argue that the culture was entirely female driven. There have always been exceptional women leaders (both from the top, but also the ‘rebels’ from the bottom up) in organisations where I have worked. There still are now.
Space Invaders has fired me up into taking action. For too long I have sat too quietly on equality. Yes of course I have thought it vital and essential to stand up for what I don’t just believe, but what fundamentally just has to be. I left my teaching job 12 years ago in part because of the men in tweed jackets, gaffawing about cricket and rugby, and the ritual of ‘master’s tea’ being wheeled into the staff room at 4pm every day. ‘Where is my cake?’, I wanted to know. I think there I was branded as some sort of renegade feminist (said in sarcastic tones) even by my female colleagues. And although I didn’t enjoy it much, part of me feels proud now to have been educated in an all female college at Newnham. And prior to that at an all girls school in Dorset where we believed that we could do whatever we wanted to do with our lives. (Although even these admissions, I realise place me in a problematic social/class intersection…)
So what little steps can I take now? I don’t know what other women feel about their own equality (or lack of it?) in my organisation, not just on the executive board, but in its very collections, its policies. I want to find out. How can we bring women’s stories into the museum? I don’t know if the organisation has moved from an equality and diversity model to a diversity and inclusion one (as per Tate’s excellent presentation). The fact that I don’t know what the policies are and who/where they are championed is worrying in itself. I’m cross with myself for not knowing or having sought them, and I want to know. Perhaps some informal lunches with other women to discuss these things, put them on the agenda would be a start…
But I think leadership comes from all places, unexpected ones too. The hierarchical patriarchal pyramid needs to go. It should have gone ages ago. We should be following more organic, flexible, free models, experiments. Skunkworks. Doing things under the radar just to see what happens. It is out of this that I think the most radical change will come. I’d like to gather a bunch of women together, be part of a network, building on what has gone before (with Network for Change), a new generation of women in museums and galleries. Change. For women and for equality. Because this matters. It mattered to the suffragettes and it still matters for women and girls – and for all people – around the whole world. Let’s do this thing.