One of the founding objectives of the Women’s History Affinity Group at AASLH is to “[foster] mentoring, professional development, and strongly encourage young women to strive for leadership positions within their professional organizations.” The “Women Who Mentor” blog series asks successful women from across the field to share their experiences and advice with women, as well as men, who are striving to advance in their careers.
Gemma Birnbaum is the Assistant Director of Curriculum at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, LA. The Museum tells the American experience of WWII—why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today.
How do you mentor other women (and men) in your work?
The number one job of any manager is to make sure that your team members have everything they need to be happy and successful in their jobs, even above our own productivity. There are weeks when this takes up more time than others, but it is always worth the extra hours to take care of an issue one of my team members is having. It isn’t always necessary for a boss to also be a good mentor, but especially for those I manage who are newer in their careers, I make every effort to explain the processes and politics that can impact their work. If someone has an idea for a new program, for example, it’s not enough for me to tell them whether it’s a good or bad idea. Explaining the process for approval, guiding them through that process, and helping with whatever they need to realize their goal means that the next time they have an idea, they can take greater ownership over it.
Professional development is also a large part of being a mentor. When employees want to attend any kind of professional training, I will push that forward, but beyond that, I also try to teach them skills that I have. For example, several employees I manage wanted to learn the basics of web design, and I was happy to teach them what I knew. Any decent manager knows that it is critical to have someone able to replace them. Don’t be insecure when you see someone who can do your job; teach them to do it. Mentor them when it comes to things like managing others, discussing salary and advancement, and effectively interfacing with decision-makers and board members. Discussing salary and promotions is one area where women often need more coaching than men, but it’s difficult for all genders.
What are some things that you’ve learned along the way/advice for new people in the field?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned in my career is to be willing to mess up. There is often a fear, especially for people new to the field and even more so with women in my experience, to make mistakes. One of the most important qualities for advancement in the museum field, or really any industry, is the ability to make sound decisions, and often quickly. You can’t properly learn how to do that if you aren’t willing, or given the freedom, to make some mistakes. One of the challenges that I’ve experienced as a manager is having team members who were clearly worried about making even the smallest of missteps, which meant they were coming to me every time they had a decision to make, rather than informing me of their decision, or simply moving ahead without me. Making mistakes allows you to understand when you need to pull in your manager, and when you can feel empowered to act on your own. Getting your hand slapped can often be the best thing to happen to you early on, even if it feels terrible in the moment. A good workplace will be supportive of this; if they’re not, you may not be in the right place.
How does the work that you do contribute to women’s history?
As an educator, I have the privilege of helping to create content that gets put directly into classrooms around the country. Many students don’t often get the chance to see themselves positively reflected in history. Our team makes a concerted effort to create engaging classroom programs and materials that show all students how important women were to the war effort during World War II, and in particular, aims to find stories that represent not just white women, but black women and other women of color. Rosie the Riveter has become a household image, but how many have heard of Major Charity Adams? I have this Junot Diaz quotation framed by my desk: “If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” It’s a constant reminder that we have to try harder and do better each day to truly be inclusive as an institution.
Please be sure to join us next week for the second installment of the “Women Who Mentor” blog series.