Lean In’s Jessica Bennett Talks Stock Photo Mistakes

1Photo: Tara Moore.
Women are smart, interesting, fun, and amazing. But, in general, stock photography does a terrible job portraying women in a thoughtful way. Fortunately, we’re not the only ones who noticed how lame these images can be. Last week, Lean In and Getty Images announced a new initiative to ensure a more meaningful representations of women in stock photos. To give us an idea of what we can expect from the project, we spoke with Lean In's Jessica Bennett, and she gave us a sneak peek of two images in the upcoming collection.

If you had to profile the person who art directs most stock images, how would you describe them?
"I don't want to speculate — there are plenty of great art directors out there — but you can certainly look at the numbers to draw conclusions about the gender of those art directors. One recent study found that only 3% of creative directors are women. In journalism, men continue to fill the majority of top editor roles — and this likely extends to photo editor roles as well. We've all seen Mad Men. This isn't the 1950s, but the advertising industry is not exactly a model for gender equality. None of this is to say that men can't accurately depict women in visual imagery, but if we've learned anything from the research, it's that gender equality in every industry leads to better and more representative outcomes."


What's the most troubling stock image you've seen? What's the funniest?
"It's pretty funny to search 'feminism' and end up with women deep throating bananas. (Check out The Cut's great photo gallery of stock images.) A friend of Lean In, the executive director of the Center for Gender Research at Stanford recently told us that she'd been searching for 'woman plumber' on a stock photo site to illustrate an article. What came up were dozens of images of women in sexy lingerie and high heels in provocative poses — holding wrenches. These are extreme examples. I think more commonly what you see — which is perhaps not even immediately noticeable — are the subtle things like women in supporting roles to men, women contorting their bodies in ways that look 'sexy,' women whose body language does not convey agency or power or authenticity. And, these subtle things are just as important as what's overt."

How do you think companies that rely heavily on stock images will respond to this new change, since Getty is one of the more expensive options?
"Getty is the largest provider of stock imagery in the world, so a huge number of companies and media outlets and agencies already use it. The Lean In Collection makes this easy — there's no excuse not to at least try to use what's in the collection. For those not using Getty, we hope the conversation around stock imagery will make folks think twice before selecting an image of a woman laughing alone with salad, or physically climbing a (corporate) ladder, or boxing her way to the top. Or, at least we hope they'll notice how absurd many of these images are."

2Photo: Thomas Barwick.

What other tropes or stereotypes would you like to see stock agencies tackle?
"I'd love to extend this idea to editorial photography: to portraiture, to the campaign trail, to news photography. These images are not posed, so a photographer does not have as much control, but it's important to recognize that each angle is an important lens through which we see the world. Just like media outlets need to watch their language when it comes to women — why are female leaders called 'abrasive' or 'aggressive' while male leaders are simply 'bold' — we should evaluate our image choices for gender bias. These things are subtle, but they can be insidious."

Why does this matter?
"You can't be what you can't see. So, if girls are surrounded by images of women in supporting roles, women who are sexualized, women who — not just in still imagery, but in television and media — are supporting characters to men, what's that telling her about what she can be when she grows up? Nobody has done a comprehensive study of stock imagery, but the Geena Davis Institute has done the research when it comes to television and film. For every three male speaking characters in film, there is only one female. Girls are highly sexualized and less likely to be portrayed holding jobs. I'd venture to say the stock imagery representation is similar. And, these things matter. Girls internalize these messages. The more media a girl consumes, the less options she thinks she has in life. So, let's start showing girls — and boys and women and men — images that they can be inspired by, and aspire to. Let's show them an accurate reflection of what's happening in the culture: Women are rising up in their careers, and men are being supportive fathers and caretakers at home."