Women in the Arts: Everywhere But the Pinnacle

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Does gender matter in leadership roles in the arts? According to recent literature, the answer is yes.

In early 2017, the New York Times published an article entitled “Gender Gap Persists at Largest Museums.” The piece cites a study from the Association of Art Museum Directors, which found that while 48 percent of art museums are led by women, a major gender gap persists at the US’s largest museums. Only one of the US’s 13 largest museums is run by a woman, and only 30 percent of museums with budgets of $15 million or higher have female directors, according to the study.

These numbers reflect the general trend overall across industries:

– Only 4.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.
– Only 17 percent of startups have a female founder.
– Of the top 100 artists whose works sold for highest amounts at auction in 2017, only 13 were women.

Why might this gender disparity exist? There is no firm consensus on which factors create the glass ceiling, though there are some theories:

  1. Women start their careers in marginalized roles and jobs — e.g. HR, nursing, teaching
  2. Lax enforcement of nondiscrimination policies and/or low reporting of gender discrimination
  3. Some women make a conscious choice not to work in the ways that current organizational paradigms demand (e.g., 90-hour weeks)
  4. Unequal pay leads to greater stress for women
  5. Traditional role division at home leads to greater work loads for women (see Arlie Hochschild’s work on the “second shift” women serve at home)

Breaking the glass ceiling in any industry takes a combination of skill, organizational jiu-jitsu, serendipity, and a willingness to break the mold. Some tips on getting to the top — and helping other women do so alongside you — include:

  1. Create a wide escalator, not a ladder, to the top. When you are at the top and look back down to women at lower levels, make sure they see an escalator, not a precarious and dangerous ladder they have to climb.
  2. Remove as many artificial or outdated obstacles to other women’s advancement as you can. For example, in higher education, the process of getting a PhD is based on a model from 400+ years ago. It requires intense work for and obeisance to a tenured faculty member, who has the doctoral candidate’s future in their hands, creating a high vulnerability to individual preferences and judgements.
  3. As simple and oft-repeated as it sounds, find mentors. Have at least three mentors who can help you confidently navigate and address organizational issues as they arise.
  4. Have a clear answer for yourself about why you want to be at the top. Make sure it is as compelling as any other opportunity in your life. Leading and managing are not natural activities for most people; they are not even enjoyable activities for a majority. Leading and managing are tough; be sure you want that part of the job.
  5. Gain organizational and leadership skills through training, not just practice. Learn the language of organizations. This knowledge is often gained by completing an MBA program, but it is possible to acquire through other means. Understand the basics of finance, accounting, marketing, and production. This is the language of organizational life, much like anatomy and biology are the languages of medicine. Underneath the art produced in an arts organization is an organization that functions much like other organizations outside the field.
  6. Have a strategic plan for your organization. The process of creating such a plan can change your organization’s culture, improve leadership skills, and provide you with a blueprint to guide your organization and make decisions.

To sum up the challenges and opportunities that women face in the arts today, it may be helpful to turn to the words of Darsie Alexander, chief curator of The Jewish Museum and a panelist at Organizational Performance Group’s upcoming workshop, Wonder Women in the Arts:

“Our industry is led by some amazing women — directors, philanthropists, and artists who have broken ground for a new generation of leaders. My own career growth has been enabled by my own perseverance and working with other women who have modeled how to balance our professional work with life commitments like having a family. I love what I do as a curator; it is core to who I am as a person. My success is truly contingent on that passion as well as having a lot of tenacity to deal with the changing conditions of our field. I also enjoy helping pave the way for those great curators and leaders of the future and supporting them as much I can as their boss, mentor, and colleague.”

Laura Freebairn-Smith, PhD, is a partner at Organizational Performance Group.

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Laura Freebairn-Smith has been a consultant for such distinguished companies as the New York Times and People's Bank. Her specialty is assisting leaders in realizing the full potential of their organizations through humanistic and analytical practices, while offering guidance in the redesign of infrastructure, the creation of strategic plans, and with organizational development. Laura currently teaches leadership at Yale's Drama School and diversity and team building in the Executive MBA program at Yale's School of Management.