Finally, Some Transparency in Pay in Museums

Last week, museum workers started a Google sheet to share Art/Museum Salary Transparency. HOORAY! The transparency of salaries and UNequal pay has certainly gotten more attention lately, from the US women’s soccer team lawsuit to actress Michelle Williams coming forward to share how VERY little she got paid last year to women in all kinds of industries – including higher ed– demanding faster action. One of the best ways to get better pay for all (a rising tide lifts all boats, folks!) is for all of us to be more transparent about pay. So I’m glad to see that someone the Philadelphia Museum of Art staff have kicked this off.

Museums have never been known for paying well. 🤣

But it’s never going to get even marginally better if workers have no clue how their pay is or is not comparable to that of their colleagues. And advocating for better pay industry-wide takes an effort of this scale, so that anyone can see how bad the pay is.

Knowledge is power. Employees need to know what the pay is in an industry to make an informed decision about whether that will support or hamper their lifestyle and goals. This is a huge step in the right direction.

I work in a public university, and our salaries are a matter of public record. I can go online at any time and look someone up by job title or name and see what they’re paid. While sometimes I look someone up knowing I’m about to get REAL pissed off, more often than not, I use it to arm myself with the data I need for these conversations. (And probably also get pissed off.) So I can say, “I’m getting paid 16% LESS than ANYONE else with my job title at this university and 27% less than the AVERAGE pay for my job title.” A real statement from my last exit interview.

But even when I’m job searching – here at my public university or at other higher ed employers (public or private), it is INFURIATING when they don’t give any salary info. Sometimes, if it’s a public university, or when you know someone who works there, you can still get a decent estimate of what they might be paying when they put only Salary: DOE (depends on experience). But more often than not, it’s a TOTAL guessing game. (When it’s a position I’m legitimately interested in and would be an excellent fit for but isn’t local, I’ve actually written the hiring manager in advance of applying saying “Considering I’d be uprooting and moving my family if offered this job, could you at least share a salary range before I go through the enormous effort of applying?” to see if it’s worth my time. Sometimes they tell me, sometimes not. (And by the way, no I don’t use that exact language. I’m just making my point here.)

But museums have always been worse. They operate behind an iron curtain. Most do not have any obligation to share their salaries publicly, and it’s long been a request on Museum-L to PLEASE state at least some vague approximate pay when posting a job so that we can plainly evaluate whether we want to pursue a great job when it pops up but it’s 1500 miles away, requires at least a Master’s degree and 5 years full time experience, and pays only $15/hour. I still remember a TERRIFIC job listing at a museum I competed for, and made it to the second round and they said: “We need your salary expectations – a firm number – before we can proceed” and the only research I could do was based on calling others at other museums, scouring past years’ job descriptions, and the advice of others about my value. I said a number and they never called me again.

I don’t regret leaving the museum profession AT ALL. I still adore museums, have a very soft spot for anyone who works in them, and will always cherish the creative, scrappy, and talented colleagues I had. But I don’t miss the craptastic pay, the zero benefits, the long hours, the no financial support for professional development, the layoff

So I opened the spreadsheet to see how much things have changed in the past 10+ years. In some ways I was pleasantly surprised. There are some – more than I thought, actually – getting paid what could even be a living wage. (I say “could be” because the data is anonymous, so while there is some information indicating the general geographic location and institutional size, there’s still a huge cost of living difference between, say, St. Louis and a rural “Midwest” location. There just aren’t enough details in the spreadsheet.) But, of course I’m still seeing folks getting paid a lot less than $55,000, my ending salary the last year I worked in museums, which was >10 years ago. I haven’t had time to crunch the data yet, but I’ll be curious to look at pay in anthropology museums (where I was), and in my neck of the woods (where museum pay is dismal even compared to the poor museum pay of other comparably-sized cities).

The creators of the spreadsheet say they were inspired by the Adjunct Project, so that was an interesting dovetail for me – to see the influence of my current industry (higher ed) on my former industry (museums).

If you work in museums, or used to, let me know your thoughts as you begin to dive into the data. And if you work in higher ed, are your salaries available transparently? How do you use that data? And if not, how do you find out whether you’re getting paid fairly? Do you discuss your salary with others at work? Why or why not? Is there a similar crowd-sourced spreadsheet in your industry? Email me your thoughts: beth at academicsatwork dot com

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