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Recap of ELNYA event on women leaders in the arts

Jessica Ferey, co-founder of GEMM, recently moderated the panel, Inspire, Aspire, Create: Women Leaders in the Arts, produced by the Emerging Leaders of New York Arts.

A summary of the event is available below (originally posted on

Inspiration from Women Leaders in the Arts — towards closing the gender gap

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect: a day before the Emerging Leaders of New York Arts event Inspire, Aspire, Create: Women Leaders in the Arts, the Association of Art Museum Directors released the 2017 report “The Ongoing Gender Gap in Art Museum Directorships,” an update to its report published in 2014.

From left to right: Jessica Ferey, moderator and founder of Equalarty; Rachel Chanoff, Performing Arts and Film Curator and Artistic Director, Celebrate Brooklyn!; Katie Hollander, Executive Director, CREATIVE TIME; Ginny Louloudes, Executive Director, Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York; Mara Manus, Executive Director, New York State Council on the Arts; Pauline Willis, Director, American Federation of Arts. Photo by @GracieAstrove

​​The findings paint a rather grim update for the state of the field: while 48% of all art museums are led by women (up from 43% in 2014), the largest museums (with budgets of $15 million or more) are still mostly led by men (with 30% of the directorships held by women). And the pay gap remains: female directors earned, on average, 73 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earned.

There’s still work to do. And quite a few director jobs are up for grabs — including the highly coveted position at the Met. Let’s see what happens in the next few years…

In the meantime, it’s 2017, and while it was exciting and inspiring to be moderating a panel about women leaders in the arts in front of a sold out crowd of emerging arts leaders, With this in mind, I opened the session with the question:

“Why are we still talking about this?”

As Lisa Phillips, director of the New Museum, is quoted saying in the recent New York Times article about the AAMD study, “The first step in addressing inequality is acknowledging it…Hard data makes it plain and clear.”

When I was writing my graduate thesis on the topic, this kind of data was extremely difficult to find. The 2014 AAMD study was one of the only industry-wide reports looking at gender and leadership. Luckily, in the past few years, we’re seeing a lot more of these from other industries: concrete data from Opera America reveals that less than 8% of leadership roles at the top tier operas are held by women (though this increases slightly with mid-tier operas). The League of American Orchestras released their own report in 2016 showing women hold 50.4% to 55.1% of top executive roles (but does not break it down by budget size, so it is difficult to compare against the orchestra and museum numbers we have).

The good news is, we’re starting to get more data and that will help us build more equitable work places in the cultural sector. We can now benchmark and track progress and plan accordingly.

With all of this fresh data in mind, the all-star panel last week delved into the topic and got really really honest. So honest that I’m not going to quote everything here; it was one of those “cone of silence” type deals. But there’s still plenty to share:

Mentorship and Sponsorship

A major thread throughout the conversation was about mentorship. Ginny Louloudes, Executive Director of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, urged us all to consider finding sponsors, not just mentors. What’s a sponsor, you ask? Check out this nifty infographic from Catalyst:

Ginny explained that her sponsor urged her, at the very start of her career, to get in front of people, to be at big events such as the Tony Awards. Her sponsor bought her a ticket and advocated for her throughout the event, and beyond. While a mentor provides invaluable guidance, a sponsor is your champion and advocate, helping you gain visibility. In the cultural sector, this kind of visibility can be crucial.

This Forbes interview with Sylvia Ann Hewlett explains it best: “If mentors help define the dream, sponsors are the dream-enablers. Sponsors deliver: They make you visible to leaders within the company — and to top people outside as well.”

Following Ginny’s comments, Rachel Chanoff, Performing Arts and Film Curator and Artistic Director of Celebrate Brooklyn!, added that beyond mentors and sponsors, there’s also so much you can learn from your own colleagues, “It’s key to have women colleagues… and to call each other!”

Mara Manus, Executive Director of the New York State Council on the Arts, joined in and noted that having a group of colleagues to talk to and rely on is really important, adding that “it really is lonely at the top!”

Work/Life Balance. Or really, Flexibility

Like many other panels on this topic, the issue of work/life balance was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Our panelists were quite frank: there’s really no such thing. Katie Hollander, executive director of CREATIVE TIME, said it best: “Balance is what feels right for you.”

While many of us want to have it all, we need to be realistic. Finding that balance, for ourselves, is key.

But employees, especially female employees, shouldn’t be shouldering this burden on their own. It’s time for employers to recognize the needs of their employees, and get with the times. But how?

Pauline Willis, Director of the American Federation of Arts, provides flextime options for her employees. This is especially helpful for parents. She added that while flextime is a small change, it is empowering for, and appreciated, by her staff.

Other panelists chimed in and emphasized that having a life is just as important as being dedicated to your work. Rachel Chanoff reminded us that employees are human beings after all, and should be treated as such.

Here’s how flexibility could be the major game changer in fixing the gender gap, especially in leadership positions. And here’s an article about a company helping women to negotiate these flexible work schedules.

What are you doing now to ensure a more equitable work place? And what can the next generation do to prepare?

That was the final question to our panelists.

Mara Manus responded, “Ask not what we can do for you… but what you can do for yourselves.”

She encouraged the crowd of young women to not to be afraid of approaching the more established leaders; most of them, like herself, are extremely open to sharing advice, but few ever come to ask for it.

When interviewing potential candidates, Pauline Willis asks the long game question: “How can this organization help you in achieving your professional goals.” Accepting the fact that — in this day and age — your next hire may not be sticking around forever, it’s important to find out the employee’s goals and find ways for the organization to help her/him grow. In the end, it’s good for both the employee and the organization!

Katie Hollander added that creating a pipeline for the next generation of leaders is also about trying to minimize turnover and keeping that strong talent within the organization. She explained that she works hard to give employees opportunities to grow — and even to move over from one department to another if that is where their passion and talent drive them.

Finally, Ginny Louloudes added that beyond creating pipelines, adjusting the balance is also about adjusting the way job descriptions are written and where they are posted.

Many studies have proven that job descriptions often include inherent gender bias in the vocabulary used. Here’s a test.

So what’s next?

I think it’s safe to say that the one-hundred-some women in the room left the panel feeling inspired and empowered.

As mentioned earlier, this increasing amount of data about the gender gap in the cultural sector can be an important tool for helping to close the gap, by benchmarking and tracking progress.

A key takeaway, too, is to remember that we are all human, and we are equal humans. It’s time we started being treated that way.

I urge you to keep up the good fight. To negotiate more flextime. To discuss your aspirations and career goals with your employers. To apply for that job where you might only meet 70% of the qualifications.

Most of all, I urge you to keep talking about this.

Other resources

I invite you to join the conversation with the Gender Equity in Museums Movement. You can find us on Facebook here.

Follow Equalarty on Twitter: @equalarty and check back for updates on the website.

Also, sign up for updates from ELNYA… we’re trying to figure out how to keep this conversation going and hope to offer more events on the topic!

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