Creating a diverse and equal workforce

Maurice Davies and Helen Wilkinson, 15.04.2011
The benefits of having a diverse range of staff are many but changing who works in museums is not enough if museums are to be truly diverse institutions
POSITIVE ACTION

The lack of diversity in the museum workforce first came to be taken seriously in the 1990s. For a number of years, efforts to improve the situation focused on encouraging more people from diverse backgrounds to train for employment in museums.

In 1999, the Museums Association (MA) launched its Diversify programme of positive action training for people from black and minority-ethnic backgrounds. Funding from Renaissance through the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) enabled a huge expansion of the scheme and in total over 100 people have been directly supported on the MA’s training programmes.

Moreover, Diversify has kick-started a culture of active workforce diversification across the museum sector, by raising the profile of the issue and encouraging museum leaders to take the problem seriously.

In 2007, the MA began to extend its positive action training to disabled people. And in 2010, with support from Renaissance, it ran a new programme of entry-level training for people from less affluent backgrounds. This was in response to research that suggested that some of the most significant barriers preventing people taking up careers in museums were to do with social class and economic status, a situation made worse by the common requirement to volunteer before securing paid work in a museum.  

Lucy Shaw, coordinator of the Diversify programme at the MA, says that the attitudes to workforce diversification have changed, helped by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council encouraging hub museums to produce workforce diversity action plans.

"Although they weren’t an ideal template, they’ve really made people think about it and begin to take it more seriously and to think about how they can change the types of people that are coming to work in museums,” she adds.

Karen Perkins, director of Luton Museums, believes strongly in the benefit of having a diverse range of staff: “The diversity of the team that we have running the museum helps to open our eyes to new opportunities in terms of things like contemporary collecting,” she says.

“It informs our exhibitions and our programmes because the more we reflect the audiences we’re there to serve, the better placed we are to deliver something that we think they’re going to enjoy.”

Shaw says that some museums have begun to take a broad view of diversity: “In terms of class and background, some particularly forward-looking museums are trying not to recruit the usual suspects, to not just take the easy option, but to look at what skills are actually needed for the job and not necessarily expect people to have PhDs or masters in museum studies, but that’s still probably unusual.”

DEEPER CHANGE

Changing who works in museums is not enough if museums are to be truly diverse institutions. To become more diverse may mean changing the make-up of your workforce, but it also means changing the way your museum does things.

“There are really good examples of museums that link workforce development and diversity to organisational change and broader strategic aims than just ‘we need to have a more diverse workforce’,” says Shaw.

At its most fundamental, diversity means making sure that everyone has the opportunity to fulfil his or her potential. The museums that took part in the Smarter Museums programme concentrated on developing more inclusive working practices. Simply put, it meant trying to give more people more opportunities to contribute – by changing meetings so that more people have chance to speak, for example, or by taking suggestions made by people who do not usually make decisions more seriously.

Obviously this was a challenging process. But the museums where it worked best were able to start improving the service they offered, as well as making people’s working lives happier and more fulfilling. Some of the museums even found that members of staff who had almost been written off as problematic or demotivated blossomed through the process and started making a positive contribution.

THE EQUALITY ACT 2010

The impact of the Equality Act 2010, which was passed before the May 2010 general election, has changed the context for museums’ work on diversity and equality although the full impact of the legislation is still somewhat unclear.

The new Conservative-led government plans to repeal some provisions and has consulted about the implementation of others.

The main aim of the legislation was to replace a confusing array of earlier legislation with one simple act. Broadly speaking, this means that all forms of difference that might give rise to discrimination are given the same protection.

The Equality Act protects against discrimination on the grounds of nine characteristics in total. Six of these are sometimes known as the “equality strands”:  gender, race, faith, sexuality, age and disability. The other three were previously covered in part by the Sex Discrimination Act: pregnancy and maternity, gender reassignment, and marriage and civil partnership. These provisions came into force on 1 October 2010.

As well as aiming to prevent discrimination, the Equality Act aimed to encourage organisations to work to promote equality more actively. Some of these more ambitious provisions will be scrapped; for example, a new duty for public bodies to try to reduce the inequalities between rich and poor.

Others will be made less onerous. The act included a new duty to promote equality across all six of the equality strands. It is likely that the final version of the duty will focus on requiring organisations to provide access to information about how they make decisions.

Under previous legislation, public bodies were required to undertake Equality Impact Assessments (EIAs) to look at the implications of their work for different sections of the community, and to ensure that already disadvantaged groups are not further disadvantaged or excluded by particular initiatives. Public bodies will no longer have to complete this form of assessment.

But the principle can be useful. The Horniman Museum and Gardens, for example, has used a simple toolkit to undertake an EIA of all its existing policies – from HR policies to the acquisitions and disposal policy.

Kirsten Walker, head of collections (management) and special projects at the Horniman Museum and Gardens, led the project. She says: “Some sort of systematic way of thinking about the equality implications of your work is very useful, regardless of the tool you choose to use.”

It is too soon to say exactly how the Equality Act will change the legal landscape for museums working towards greater diversity and equality. But the fact that it was passed into law does indicate how much the public debate around diversity and equality has moved on, and that should give greater impetus to museums’ work in this area.

This article is an edited extract from the Museums Association's Culture Change, Dynamism and Diversity report, written by Maurice Davies and Helen Wilkinson. Click here to read the report

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