Sunday, December 22, 2013

Take it from children's museums- these toys are for everyone

Around this time of year the discussion about girl toys vs. boy toys gets particularly lively. Most of us who are concerned about the strict gendering of toys are in agreement: the way toys are designed and marketed is sexist and harmful to children. But all too often these discussions take a turn away from discussing the limitations this puts on children and starts maligning toys meant for girls and upholding boy toys as somehow better.

I’d like to argue for a more inclusive way of talking about toys. Instead of using the word “girly” as a synonym for “dopey” or “frivolous” or referring to “playing with dolls” in a dismissive way, let’s recognize the value of “girl” and “boy” toys. To say that playing with dolls is not as important as playing with blocks, we are creating a hierarchy of play and sending children the message that some interests are better than others.

And it has implications on the professions that grow out of these interests- it’s no secret that the salaries in the male-dominated engineering (building stuff) field are much higher than the salaries in the female-dominated teaching (communicating and taking care of people) field.

Here are three toys that are generally thought of as being for girls and why they are not to be dismissed. In fact these toys are so important that children’s museums include them in their exhibits, and though I’m completely biased, I happen to think that’s a great metric for evaluating a play experience.

1. Baby Dolls
A boy and girl with baby dolls at the Iowa Children's Museum 
Photo by Jody Landers.
These are some of the best dolls you can get. Unlike fashion dolls, they are realistic and often anatomically correct and their skin comes in a variety of colors. In their day-to-day lives, children are completely dependent on grownups and it can be extremely rewarding to flip things and become someone who takes care of someone else for a change. And children know just what to do. They rock the baby in their arms, sing to it, feed it, and change its diapers. When children imagine the feelings and needs of others, they are building empathy skills and those will serve them well regardless of whether they want to become parents themselves one day.

2. Dollhouses 
Historic dollhouse on display at Boston Children's Museum.
Dollhouses make a child’s familiar world small and easy to manipulate. The scale gives children control over things they have no control over in real life and allows them to act out scenarios between characters. Storytelling and dialogue are ways that children learn valuable communication and interpersonal skills. When two or more children play together with a dollhouse, the negotiation skills they develop are valuable too.

3. Play Kitchens
The Rainbow Market at Children's Discovery Museum of 
San Jose features a play kitchen with child-sized appliances.
In a world where counters are hard to reach, a scaled-down anything is exciting and kitchens are no exception. Real kitchens are not particularly child-friendly places to play, but they are a central part of daily life in a society that eats three times a day. When there is nothing to mash or stir, children often need to be shooed out of kitchens for their own safety. Play kitchens give children a safe opportunity to emulate grownups independently and begin to develop healthy personal relationships with food, eating, and cooking.


Monday, September 9, 2013

Leaning in, full throttle

I would have had a perfect score on my motorcycle driving test if it hadn't been for the part where you're asked to perform a "sudden stop". I was so focused on the goal of performing this stop that I let back on the throttle well before my mark. I braked too soon and lost points.

"Don't put on the brakes. Accelerate." Sheryl Sandberg
I'm reading Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In and I just finished Chapter 7, “Don't Leave Before You Leave.” It's all about women putting the brakes on their careers long before children are even a glimmer in their eyes, deciding not to take promotions and pursue demanding positions in anticipation of maybe someday becoming a parent.

From the driving test anecdote above, you've probably gathered that I think ahead- sometimes to a fault. And Sheryl Sandberg clearly states in Chapter 7, "When it comes to integrating career and family, planning too far in advance can close doors rather than open them." This concept makes sense to me. But I know I'm a planner and for now, I'm choosing to work with this tendency instead of against it:

I am pursuing my career with wild abandon because I know I would like to someday be a parent.

Now, I'm reluctant to talk about this because I’m sure it’s frustrating for parents to hear a non-parent talking about parenting. Also it's personal. I'm fighting this trepidation because I haven't heard anyone of my generation discussing this subject and this is a conversation that I want to have with my fellow museum professionals.

For me, being a parent will likely involve dialing back my career for a few years. I'll want to have reached a certain level in my career before I focus on children so I can more easily pick up where I left off. It's also important for me to co-parent in an equitable way so I want to be able to financially support my partner as well as my kids if need be. It may seem a little extreme, but I'm saving up now. I don't want anything or anyone to limit my or my family's options. That said, I acknowledge my privilege as a middle-class individual for whom having a career or a family are both choices.

Oh but you're still young, you might say, What if you change your mind? And you're right, that might happen- I change my mind about stuff all the time. But if when I'm older and have decided not to have children, I'll be reveling in my career and have a whole lot of money saved up. Maybe I'll buy a second home in Paris. Or maybe just some nice things at Whole Foods.

As someone who is excited about the prospect of parenting one day, I'm putting my tendency to plan ahead to work for me. I know I’ll be tapping on the brakes at some point but instead of focusing on that now, I’ll do my best to lay the groundwork for a future in which I can choose how I want to have a career and a family, however that ends up playing out in my life, regardless of my gender.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

American Family, Revisited

Happy Pride, museum-geeks! It's been an historic week with Supreme Court decisions to overturn DOMA and dismiss Prop 8 here in California, all in the last few days of Pride Month. We have plenty of reasons to be merry and gay. But for all the progress we've made lately, it's clear we still have a long way to go. Just a couple weeks ago a lesbian family was denied a family membership at their local children's museum. Luckily, children's museums are in the unique position to directly affect change and we do it every day by empowering children in the development of their imaginations. A strong imagination is a powerful tool in learning empathy and empathy is what drives movements of social justice.

Back in April I spoke about this at Pecha Kucha Night at the Association of Children's Museums conference in Pittsburgh. I got such positive feedback that evening that I decided to turn my presentation into a video.

Here it is:

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Women in museums: over-represented and underpaid

...our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.
President Barack Obama

As soon as the 2012 AAM National Comparative Museum Salary Study came out, I was on their website downloading my free copy. It's the first publication of its kind for the museum field and I'm thrilled to have access to a resource like this. You can download it for free too if you're an AAM member.  The biggest downfall of the study, which is admitted outright in Chapter 1, is its omission of the Mid-Atlantic and the West Coast. Without their representation this study leaves out New York, Los Angeles, and Washington DC, three of the top five "Most [Economically] Important Cities" ranked by Business Insider. As disappointing as that is, I'm confident the next Salary Study AAM publishes will include all 50 states. My real disappointment (note: not surprise) came later when I started to read the data.

Two thirds of the survey respondents were women and they outnumbered men in all but 8 of the 48 positions highlighted in the survey. And yet, a quick scan down each page reveals that, "Although women usually fill the majority of jobs in each position, it is clear from these tables that they typically receive less pay than their male peers." (26) Even though 60% of CFOs in museums are women and even though 57% of executive directors are women, men are making higher salaries. Not only are women not compensated equally, it's often women who are involved in making those decisions.

There are a lot of reasons why women make less than men. Not one of them is a good excuse. Change won't happen overnight, but there are a few things we can start doing right away. I recommend reading, Women Don't Ask by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. Regardless of how victim-blamey the title sounds, it's a useful book for anyone who avoids negotiation or could use some advice on self-advocacy.

Here's my call to arms, fellow Emerging Museum Professionals: let's take on those director-level positions, mentor the women in our lives in self-advocacy, then ensure that the women we hire receive the same salaries as men in the same positions. While we're at it we need to hire people of color (according to AAM's "data snapshot", the museum workforce is 79.4% white) and recognize the artistic and scientific achievement of women and people of color in our museums, but that's another blog post (or rather a whole lot of other blog posts).

It's unacceptable for any field, let alone a female-dominated one, to pay women less than men and it is completely within our power as museum professionals to change this. In fact, we're the only ones who can.