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‘Barefoot at the kitchen sink?’ The Position of Women in the Heritage Workforce

‘Barefoot at the kitchen sink?’ The Position of Women in the Heritage Workforce

This blog was prompted by the focus of Museum Week being all about women, and what a good opportunity this would be to share some of the research about the heritage workforce, which I did during my MA thesis; ‘Barefoot at the kitchen sink?’ The Position of Women in Heritage. I am hoping to publish part of my thesis soon so watch this space (all fingers crossed please).

Today I’m going to talk about what position women are in today, in terms of the heritage workforce. This topic is quite well established in the academic field (particularly in relation to archaeology and museum studies), however much less has been written regarding women in the wider heritage industry, which of course includes museums, but also historic houses and historic sites.

Back in the summer of 2016 I had a search through the heritage industries’ plethora of websites with the aim of establishing who it is that runs some of our most significant heritage sites, and what I found out was very telling. To get this data I went on to the Heritage Alliance’s website, picked at random 31 of the members that were listed, and then looked at their websites to gather the data that they had published about their boards and senior management teams.

When I started to analyse this data it was instantly clear that the highest ranks of these 31 organisations are still predominantly male. For example, 26 members published data about their Chairs of the Board of Trustees; 73.1% were male, while only 26.9% were female. The Boards of Trustees themselves were also predominantly male. 29 organisations published data on their boards, and out of 353 individuals, 218 were male (61.8%) and 135 were female (38.2%). The graph below shows a visual interpretation of these results.


As can be seen, for the majority of these organisations, there is a definite trend towards male dominated Boards. Particularly of note:

  • SAVE Britain’s Heritage – 100% male
  • Heritage of London Trust – 90% male
  • ICOMOS UK – 88.9% male
  • North of England Civic Trust – 85.7% male
  • Historic Houses Association – 83.3% male


In fact, absolutely none of the 31 organisations sampled have over 70% of a female Board. Out of the 29 organisations that at least have some female members on their Boards, 22 of these have under 50% of female Trustees, 17 have under 40%, and 8 have under 30%. This demonstrates that the very top ranks of the heritage industry are still male heavy.

I also looked at the Senior Management teams of these 31 organisations, and it is here that we begin to see women within the industry; 23 organisations published data about these teams. Across the CEO/Chief Executive position of these organisations, 52.2% of them were male and 47.8% were female. Excluding this position from the remaining Senior Management data gathered, and only including positions such as Director of/Head of/Manager, there was a total of 117 individuals: 48.7% male and this time 51.3% female. The graph below displays these results further.


Here you can see that there is less of a definite trend, but that women are certainly much more visible within the workforce at this level. Particularly of note:

  • Architectural Heritage Fund – 100% male
  • Birmingham Conservation Trust – 100% female
  • Chartered Institute for Archaeologists – 100% female
  • Council for British Archaeology – 100% female
  • The Institute of Historic Building Conservation – 100% female


Of the remaining 16 organisations, 4 have over 70% male Senior Management, and 4 have over 70% female senior management. The other 8 are more equally split around 50/50 or 60/40 either way.

What these figures mean for the management and running of heritage sites within England is quite significant. The Boards of Trustees within organisations have overall legal and managerial responsibility for an organisation, although they may delegate the day-to-day running to Senior Management (KnowHow NonProfit 2016). This links with an argument that Hein (2010, 55-56) makes, suggesting that although women are becoming more numerous within the industry, entering the ranks of museum professionals and reaching to proportionally higher ranks, their impact upon the “fundamental theorising about and within the museum is minimal”.

This is a danger as if men still dominate the heritage workforce in the very top ranks, the masculinity of the authorised heritage discourse (AHD, coined by Smith 2006) will be preserved and reinforced (Smith 2008, 163). The AHD is a professional discourse that dominates Western debates about the nature, value and meaning of heritage (Smith 2008, 162). This discourse has led to the sites and monuments that are considered as heritage within the AHD being predominantly associated with masculinity. For example, within the AHD, certain aspects of history are emphasised and privileged; tangible sites and monuments relating to aesthetics and ‘great’ or ‘grand’ places associated with male elite architectural development (Grahn 2011, 226, 242). In fact, the focussing of heritage on masculine prowess validates this elite male history reinforcing the idea of history generally as the ‘history of man’ focussing on “great men and their deeds” (Smith 2008, 163). Essentially, this discourse defines what heritage is.

As seen in the figures above, males still dramatically dominate the highest levels in the industry within England and are responsible for the overall governing and policies. This may greatly affect what is considered as heritage, and potentially perpetuate the AHD and the masculine sense of history it preserves.

Helen Simmons, Project Manager


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