Let’s talk about discrimination and sexual harassment at small public history sites, history museums, and related organizations. A large number of public history organizations run with staff of three, two, or even one and many public historians spend part or all of their careers at places run by only a handful of employees.1 Work under these conditions can be incredibly joyful, impactful, and fulfilling, but people working in these settings seem to face a special set of challenges related to harassment and discrimination. They routinely work one-on-one, sometimes alone, with board members, members, and donors, and often lack human resources departments or other internal mechanisms designed to help them seek protection and recourse against inappropriate and predatory behavior.
I recently asked a few senior public history professionals for advice on how we might better support people facing these kinds of challenges. One person advised me, a young female professional, to avoid drinking at work functions and to bring my husband with me whenever possible. This is unhelpful at best, victim blaming at worst, and it misses the point. I’ve already learned these lessons through personal experience and from whisper networks of women and others who have dealt with this their entire lives (hold your keys in your hand when walking home/to your car, don’t walk outside at night, never leave your drink unattended, don’t dress provocatively, and so on). Responses from the others were more helpful, though just as discouraging. They agreed that this has been and continues to be a serious problem, that little sustainable action has been taken to remedy it, and that we need to do more to support people working in vulnerable positions and who have few or no avenues of official recourse.
So, how do we deal with this? How can we better support people facing harassment and discrimination at small and under-resourced public history organizations? And, though the onus shouldn’t be on victims to stop predatory behavior, what can employees do to protect themselves?
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of maybes:
On a professional level:
- University degree programs and/or professional organizations could do more to normalize conversations about professional behavior and provide resources explaining what professionals can do when faced with harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Recognizing what is and what is not okay can sometimes be difficult for people just starting out and victims may not know their rights or know how to bring up workplace issues with their employer. It’s great that more and more professional organizations are adopting anti-discrimination and harassment policies to protect people attending their conferences. How can we expand the scope of this work? And if professional organizations and/or universities shouldn’t be the ones doing this, who should?
- The resources mentioned above should include explanations of the legal avenues available to people facing predatory behavior. If your employer can’t or won’t help you, or if your employer is the problem, you can file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or a watchdog group like the American Civil Liberties Union. Additionally, local governments sometimes have commissions or agencies that can be helpful in these situations. The city of Chicago has, for example, a Commission on Human Relations that accepts complaints related to workplace harassment and “investigates and rules on each…through a neutral process which gives complainants and respondents the opportunity to present evidence and legal arguments to support their positions.” We need to highlight these options so they’re readily available to people who need them.
On an individual level:
- Stop putting the onus on employees and victims to minimize discrimination and harassment and stop telling them to “just quit” when this happens. Quitting isn’t always a viable option or economic possibility for people facing issues at work. That being said, there are sometimes things we can do individually to help keep ourselves safe.
- If you’re comfortable doing so, call the police to report illegal behavior.
- Document EVERYTHING. If something feels off, it probably is. Trust your gut and write it down. Keep a record.
- Insist on professional boundaries from the beginning. Many small public history organizations and museums hired their first professional staff in the last decade or two and haven’t yet fully transitioned to professional workplace culture. For example, an employee shouldn’t be required to go, and especially not alone, to a board member’s home or office to complete a required work task. Similarly, an employee should not be required to meet with donors, members, or board members one-on-one unless both parties are comfortable with that arrangement. For example, a donor once told me that he would happily continue his annual donation toward our regular fundraiser if I accepted a date with his adult son, who was present during this encounter. Another donor asked me to go to dinner with him, alone, on more than one occasion to discuss his business sponsorship. He declined the alternatives I offered, which were to meet at our office with board members present. None of this is okay.
- Join local or regional professional networks that have institutional and professional members from your area. Call on these groups to develop standards and templates for professional behavior that institutional members agree to abide by when they join.
- If it’s safe and possible to do so, seek advice and support from trusted peers. Discussing workplace issues with others adds vital information to the whisper networks so many of us rely on in our professional and personal lives.
What can employers do?
- Build internal grievance mechanisms. Your employees should have an official procedure they can follow to report and follow-up on grievances related to discrimination, harassment, and other unprofessional behavior. They shouldn’t have to rely on the good-will of one or two sympathetic board members.
- Listen to your employees when they have a grievance or concern. Don’t dismiss these things because “they happen to everyone at one point or another” or because a couple of board members may balk at changing their behavior. Listen and take employee concerns seriously.
- Work with your legal counsel to enact policies that support a professional work environment.
- Join a professional organization related to your organization’s work and ask them to share any resources related to professional standards, grievance procedures, and workplace culture.
- Draw on your connections and ask other organizations in the same field what policies and protections they have in place.
- Employees (and board members, volunteers, etc.) should learn all of the above on day one.
I’m not a legal expert, and this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive or definitive list. The suggestions above are just that– suggestions– and they won’t work for everyone, but we need to start the conversation somewhere.
What else would you add?
I recognize that employees at sites with more staff members also face discrimination, harassment, and other kinds of inappropriate and harmful behavior. The point of this post is to spotlight what this looks like at sites run by few employees since a large number of public historians and other cultural employees work at sites that fit this criterion.
1 I’m using an expansive definition of employee here. This includes full-time, part-time, unpaid, seasonal, and term-based employees, interns, and contractors.