When you think of stock images for “woman at work,” what comes to mind? If it’s an image of a young, thin, Caucasian woman smiling in a business suit and heels or, alternatively, a woman frazzled from the pressures of “having it all,” you’re not alone. For years, these cliched choices were used as a shorthand to depict professional women in print and online.
As the director of visual trends at Getty Images, one of the largest stock photo agencies in the U.S., Pam Grossman is working to change this. Part of her job involves analyzing photo sales to “predict what images our customers need before they know they need them.”
She also oversees Getty Images Lean In Collection, a catalogue of photos created in partnership with Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn.org, which is trying to drive stock images of women beyond the cliched. In lieu of just lipsticked “businesswomen” and frazzled new mothers, the collection features photos of female surgeons, soldiers, hunters, chief executives, skateboarders, hockey players, weight lifters -- the list goes on and on.
There are images of men, too, but again they transcend beyond cliched representations. “They're are shown in equal partnership with the women in the picture or else they are sitting and listening to what she is saying. They are shown being involved fathers, husbands or partners at home,” she says. “So much of breaking gender stereotypes is picturing, ‘what does the world of equity look like from all gender perspectives?' We wanted to paint alternative images of masculinity as well as femininity.”
We caught up with Grossman to discuss how the portrayal of women in stock images has shifted over the past decade, and the changes that still need to take place.
Note: Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
For images of “women at work,” are there any persistent stereotypes?
A decade ago the default image was the cliched businesswoman, in a power suit or stiletto heels. Or she would be juggling a baby and pulling her hair out because she was so overwhelmed. Meanwhile, in leadership photos, she was invisible. Leaders were Caucasian men.
How have these stereotypes changed?
Ten years ago when you typed in the word “woman,” the images that came up would be very sexual. These women were very perfect looking and model-like. Often, they were in positions of passivity. In 2007, the top selling image was of a woman who is naked, half-covered in sheets, glassy-eyed and passive, lying around like an object.
But one of my favorite things to underscore is how quickly our top selling images of women has changed over a relatively short time. Five years later [in 2012], our top selling image is a woman on a train. She is going places. She is on an upward trajectory. It’s a much more relatable and authentic depiction, so that’s certainly been a north star for us and, really, a proof of concept. We’re seeing that these images are not just about putting a new face on women from a moral perspective, but this is what’s selling well and resonating with our customers. That’s heartening.
What impact do these images have?
We are surrounded by thousands of images every day, and that’s only escalated with social and mobile being so ubiquitous. Imagery is a universal language -- our brains process images much faster than they process text. It’s an immediate internalization.
We know girls are more likely to aspire to roles in their lives when they see images of them. There’s that phrase: you can’t be what you can’t see. When girls see images of scientists or women in government, they are much more likely to believe that it’s a possibility for them. We take it for granted, but the imagery we are ingesting deeply influences our expectations of the world that we live in.
What visual cues do you pay attention to?
I’ve become so sensitized to this -- I pay a lot of attention to who is standing in an image and who is sitting, who is speaking and who is listening. Even though we may see more images of women in the workplace, I still don’t think it’s good enough if they are in ancillary or passive or sidelined roles. I want to see more women who are vital, action oriented and in command.
I’d also like to see more images that depict women of different backgrounds, different ages, different physicalities.It’s getting better, but we still see the image of a woman -- age 24, size zero, perfect skin -- over and over again.
Are there similar stereotypes for men?
“The businessman.” He’s always Caucasian, usually in a suit. For years this was the default for showing a successful person. But what’s exciting is that images of fathers have escalated in our search.
“Stay at home dad,” for example, has gone up 40 percent in the last 12 months. Meanwhile, we know search terms for female empowerment has increased more than 720 percent in the last year alone. Our notion of gender as a binary is actually starting to dissolve. We are seeing images of fathers who are nurturing and affectionate and changing the diapers and doing the dishes. We are seeing women who are entrepreneurs and girls who prefer to play with bow and arrows over princess dolls.
Our definitions of what a successful man and woman is are blurring, in some cases completely inverting.