More strategic leadership on inequality needed, says Scottish report

Jonathan Knott, 20.06.2018
Equality in Progress questions the term “diversity”
Museum decision-makers need a deeper understanding of how inequality is structurally embedded in institutions if they are to increase diversity, according to a new report from Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL).

Equality in Progress: Research from a Grassroots Museum
aims to support the museum sector in widening access, representation and inclusion for people with the nine protected characteristics covered by the Equalities Act 2010. These are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.

In January, GWL received funding from the Scottish government to analyse the status of equality, diversity and inclusion in the museum sector in Scotland and conduct an audit of need for the sector in relation to these issues. The museum has been cited by Creative Scotland as a model of good practice on equalities and a leader in specialist approaches to inclusive programming, resulting in requests from cultural organisations for advice.

The report, which was presented at a conference on Monday, draws on results from a survey of museum professionals and a focus group of 11 senior managers, as well as GWL’s experience of delivering equalities training, and existing research.

GWL concluded that “while many museum practitioners and managers express a firm commitment and alignment with the values of equality, a cognitive skills gap on the mechanisms of inequality, and problematic structural frameworks stand in the way of change”.

“We recommend that museum practitioners find out more about systems of oppression, and the social movements that challenge them,” says the report. “Our organisational mechanisms are a choice: structures that fail to ensure fair access, inclusion and representation of all people can and should be deconstructed, dismantled, and reconfigured.”

The report stresses that an analysis of structural inequality must come from an intersectional perspective, “enabling us to consider and address the experiences of multiple sources of oppression on the basis of class, gender, race, sexuality, disability, age and religion”.

It questions the use of the term “diverse”, arguing that it positions people with protected characteristics as “other”, in contrast to an assumed norm which is white, male, heterosexual, non-disabled, and middle class.

“'Diversity' has been generally adopted without a nuanced understanding of the mechanisms of inequality,” says the report. “As a result the term has been emptied of an authenticity of intention as it is not informed by an understanding of how it is heard and experienced by people who are ‘diverse’.”

The authors argue that the equalities agenda is impacted by every facet of a museum, including leadership, programming, and collections and interpretation. “It is not an 'engagement' or 'education' or 'outreach' strand. Equality is everyone's responsibility,” says the report.

A lack of awareness of equality issues at a senior level was highlighted as a major factor holding back progress. One survey respondent commented that “the majority of senior staff have out-dated, antagonistic attitudes to inclusion”.

There were 242 respondents in total to GWL’s survey, of which 52 completed. 41 of the people who completed the survey worked in Scotland, and these responses were used to calculate the statistics in the report.

More than half the Scottish survey respondents said that their organisation either avoided addressing equality issues (10%), only engaged with them for compliance reasons (20%), or carried them out on an ad hoc basis (27%).

About a quarter (24%) said their organisation had a strategic approach to equality, where formal plans had been implemented. A tenth said they worked for an organisation with an “integrated” approach, where equality was internalised into systems, and another tenth reported a “sustainable” approach, where equality was a norm across the organisation.

While 58% of respondents said that their organisation influenced and led change to improve equality outcomes, only about a third (35%) said their workplace had an internal practice for critically analysing inequality.

GWL said that the survey responses show that “strategic leadership on equality, diversity and inclusion is not strong. Survey participants reported vague attempts at 'box ticking' but no real drive or commitment”.

One focus group member said that staff who had the will and motivation for embedding equalities work found hierarchical barriers "extremely frustrating".

One survey respondent said: "I worry that something resulting in a public shaming will be the only catalyst for change."

For the second stage of the project, which is subject to funding, GWL plans to work in partnership with the sector to support senior management teams to ensure that they have the right skills and expertise to lead equalities work. It also hopes to support the development of a national equalities framework for Scotland and equality action plans for individual institutions.

Rachel Thain-Gray, a co-author of the report, said that GWL would meet with the project’s funders next week to discuss the next stage. “It looks positive and I think the outcomes of the project have been more than anybody expected, and the level of interest has been amazing as well,” said Thain-Gray. “I feel optimistic about it but, failing that, we do have other channels we could explore.”

Thain-Gray said it was “really disappointing” that there was no board-level participation in the survey. “We can see that’s something that people really need support with in future, to encourage board members to engage with this as an issue and take it as a personal responsibility, as part of their governance roles, rather than seeing it as something operational. Because it’s really not. It’s about everyone taking responsibility in entire organisations”.