What kind of stock photo says "working women"?

Dan Weissmann Feb 10, 2014

What kind of stock photo says "working women"?

Dan Weissmann Feb 10, 2014

In ads, magazines, and marketing campaigns, a few images of women seem to come up again and again:  

Working woman?  Climbing ladders.  Or maybe wearing boxing gloves.

 There’s also the woman-laughing-alone-with-salad.  

Most of these stereotypical images come from stock photo collections.  Now, Lean In, a non-profit led by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and named after her book, aims to correct the problem through a partnership with the biggest distributor of those photos, Getty Images.

Michelle Underwood looks for stock photos all the time, in her job as an art director for Zocalo Group, a marketing firm in Chicago. 

“I want to write a note to stock photographers,” she says, “because every woman on every stock-photogaphy website is wearing a spaghetti-strap tank top.  And it drives me crazy.”

The Lean In collection at Getty Images has about 2,500 images tagged to correct the problem. Jessica Bennett helped curate it for the Lean In Foundation, which gets ten percent of Getty’s revenues from the photos.

“You’ll notice these people look real,” says Bennett. “That was one of the biggest things.” 

These are not just workplace images.  The first few pictures include a young girl on a skateboard, a mom teaching her daughter how to ride a bike, and a heavy-metal dad with his daughter on his shoulders. 

However, in the world of stock photography, 2,500 images is a very small collection.  

That’s really nothing,” says Lanny Ziering, an investor who has run stock photo companies. Getty’s site alone has tens of millions, and it has competitors. 

Ziering compares the Lean In collection to “what a couple photographers might be able to create in a week.”

Which could be part of the point.

Jim Pickerell, a former stock photographer and an expert on the business, says stock-photo websites offer an overwhelming number of choices.

Together, we do a very common search on Getty’s site:  “woman office computer.”    About 24,000 images come up.

Pickerell says most people will look through maybe three pages of search results.  At 100 images per page, that’s 300 photos.

“What about all those other images?” says Pickerell.  “Does anybody ever get to see them? And the answer is ‘no.'” 

So helping this small number of pictures stand out—and starting a conversation about them—may be the point.  

“Maybe it has a shaming mechanism,” says Bennett of Lean In.  “Like, there’s no excuse. This collection exists. No matter how small you think it is, this collection exists.”

I suggest to her that getting a few news stories out there today may be the point of the exercise, and she doesn’t disagree.

Neither does Getty’s co-founder and chief executive, Jonathan Klein.  “Two-and-a-half thousand images is certainly not going to change the way women are viewed across the world,” he says.  “But it’s creating the conversation.”

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