Changing our image of women, one stock photo at a time

 

As editor of The Washington Post's leadership section, I've spent many hours editing and writing stories about women in the workplace. I've also spent nearly as much time searching for photographs to accompany those pieces.

The stock photos tend to fall into three categories: a woman with cat-eye glasses who looks like a secretary, a woman balancing her briefcase and her baby, and a woman standing atop a shorter stack of money than the man next to her is standing on. It's rare to find an image that's not outright laughable or, worse, discouraging.

On Monday, however, the massive stock photography company Getty Images announced a partnership with LeanIn.org, the organization started by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg to advance women's issues. Together they have created a library of 2,500 stock images, called the Lean In Collection, that features new, more empowering portraits of women in addition to drawing on the best (that is, least stereotypical) of Getty's existing images.

Seeing as Getty photography is used by nearly every business that holds sway over our cultural imagery, from small blogs to big corporations and from news organizations to advertisers, changing our ubiquitous visual representations of working women could have a ripple effect on society. That, at least, is the rationale behind the initiative.

"So much of what Lean In is trying to do is re-envision the way we look at women in the media," Pamela Grossman, who led this project at Getty, told The Post. "The power of pictures is gargantuan."

She also added that "women" is the most frequently searched term in Getty's database, in part because industries like finance are increasingly looking to license such images for corporate use as their workforce diversifies.

In an interview with the New York Times, Sandberg said: “When we see images of women and girls and men, they often fall into the stereotypes that we’re trying to overcome, and you can’t be what you can’t see.”

Granted, stock images are always going to fall short of reality. But if a picture is worth a thousand words, it is worth thinking about the story that each image tells.

Take a look through some of the images here: 

PHOTOS | Shifting the depiction of women stock imagery

Lillian Cunningham is the editor and feature writer for The Washington Post's 'On Leadership' section.
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