Sexual Harassment in Museums: What’s Changed? What Hasn’t?


Here in the United States the issue of sexual harassment has been on the front pages for months – in May and throughout the summer with the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, and in October with the 20th anniversary of law professor Anita Hill’s testimony against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Now in November we read daily about accusations by former female employees against Herman Cain, a Republican candidate for the U.S. presidency, and most recently about allegations of terrible sexual abuse of minors by a former coach at Pennsylvania State University.  I decided not to provide links to any of these stories as all, even the oldest, appear to be unfolding daily.


Given that our museums reflect our culture in so many ways, it is not unreasonable to assume that sexual harassment is an issue that they have faced in the past, and will continue to grapple with, although this is rarely discussed publicly. And so, in the spirit of Museum Commons, I propose these reflections.  They are based not on surveys but on my own personal and professional experiences over the years.


What Has Not Changed
When I was a young newcomer at a museum many years ago I was the recipient of unwanted, inappropriate behavior from the director. Even after reporting it to my immediate supervisor, a woman, it continued for some months: this was not new or unexpected behavior from this man.  Ultimately, after another woman and I gave similar reports to higher authorities the behavior was stopped. This experience has given me an insider’s perspective whenever the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace is discussed.  While public sensitivity and workplace policies are different now than they were when I was younger, I believe the actual experience of harassment has not changed at all, and this is why people are still so unwilling to come forward.  The experience involves:
  • Shame and embarrassment to have been involved in the situation, even though a victim;
  • Anger and a feeling of powerlessness as a subordinate (usually) accusing a superior;
  • Fear of retaliation both in the current job and in future career choices – being seen as a troublemaker;
  • A feeling of being alone, despite the knowledge that this is not a unique experience;
  • A profound sense of invasion of privacy, both because of the unwanted actions of the harasser and also because of having to report and share the experience with others in the organizationin order to gain justice and closure.
I experienced all of this, and I sense it as the back story each time a woman* comes to the fore, especially when she tries to explain why she might not have reported the experience immediately.  While many take this as evidence that the incident either did not happen or was insignificant, I see it as confirmation of the powerful threat that sexual harassment is. Even when there is no physical contact, it is an act of psychological aggression and violence that leaves a legacy of fear.




What Has Changed

When I reported my experience, I don’t think I knew the term “sexual harassment.”  I didn’t have a name for it; I just knew I didn’t like it, and I wanted it to stop. After I became an administrator and manager in other institutions I had to deal on a couple of occasions with reports by women employees of inappropriate behavior by male colleagues or supervisors.  By this time the term “sexual harassment in the workplace” was a defined and acknowledged entity.  While at the Smithsonian (1998-2007) with its federal workforce, I received required training every 2 years in the legal aspects of this issue, the kinds of behavior that are deemed inappropriate, how these can affect the atmosphere of an office, and the procedures every supervisor had to follow if an employee reported harassment.  While some, especially friends and colleagues in other countries, may see these kinds of structures as too rigid and puritanical, for me they provide the finger on the scale that gives some degree of power and agency to victims who are most often in a subordinate position. I am grateful that at least some organizations now have procedures that allow them to take action with a fair amount of speed and discretion.


The application of federal laws may be a bit different for private institutions. And, of course laws will differ from country to country.  In the U.S. a number of states have passed their own laws in this area.  The website Findlaw contains an article that lists these states and that discusses state and local laws.   The American Association of  Museums also has an information page with useful links on this topic. I wonder how many non-federal museums have articulated policies to addess the issue.  I did find a number of museum policies posted on the web.


Thoughts for Museum Personnel

If you are a director or manager, you should be sure that:
  • you have a clear and public policy on workplace harassment in all forms;
  •  all of your employees know about it;
  •  managers and staff feel confident that these procedures can make things easier and contribute to a just resolution if a difficult situation arises.
If you are someone who has experienced or is experiencing workplace harassment, know that you are not alone and that you do have more resources and power than ever before.  It is still a huge decision and risk to take the step to report, but know that many victims, both men and women, are in solidarity with you.
Remember that you can comment as Anonymous.


*I realize that all these gender adjectives can be reversed – men can be harassed; women can be harassers; and there can be same sex as well as heterosexual harassment.  To avoid a lot of convoluted sentences I am referring only to the most common situations.






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