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Editor’s Insight: What do real women look like anyway?

by | Apr 28, 2017 | The Agenda

It’s been less than two months since we launched BroadAgenda on March 8th, International Womens’ Day 2017. In that time we’ve published more than 20 original blog posts from a wide range of academics and experts worldwide. During that time, I’ve also learned a huge amount – and not just about walking the tightrope balancing journalism and academia. 

Women in stock photos.

Before we started the blog, I thought it would be easy to source good quality, suitable stock images. I was familiar with the various stock photo sites, and never thought that finding images would prove to be one of the most difficult tasks. Yet somehow, I have spent an inordinate amount of time trawling through stock images to find pictures of women ‘doing stuff’. Or more specifically, of real women doing ‘real’ stuff. Finding women scientists or engineers – who actually looked like real, women –  proved extraordinarily difficult. And so too was the task of finding active, engaged women over the age of about 25.

Finding women scientists or engineers – who actually looked like real, women –  proved extraordinarily difficult. 

At times this resulted in hilarious and exasperated email exchanges between myself and colleagues: “How about this one?”; “That is not a mature-aged woman! … she’s young enough to be my daughter!” Or, “What? She’s younger than me!” (Oh, and by the way, don’t even try googling ‘mature-aged women’ if you are interested in finding a suitable photo about underemployment amongst mature-aged women. What you actually find might just make you blush).

Yes, we all had a bit of a laugh about it. But in fact, my thankless search for photos of women doing actual stuff reveals the ingrained gendered nature of images and the standard, accepted media representation of women. It turns out I’m not the only person who has noticed this problem. You might think that the amount you’re willing to pay would have an impact on the quality of the images – but, apparently not. Several articles from a few years back highlighted this issue, pointing out that a stock image search for ‘female CEO’ or ‘female boss’ will return:

“a woman in a pencil skirt and high heels, looming threateningly over a cowering man, or a woman in a power suit waving her fist at you

And don’t even try to find a photo of a woman looking anything less than delighted with whatever inane task she is carrying out, whether it’s eating a salad or smiling at her tablet device.

There has been a push-back against these cringe worthy depictions. In 2014 Getty Images launched the Lean In Collection through Sheryl Sandberg’s initiative of the same name, featuring (shock horror) women of different ages, races, weights doing different stuff. Women of Color in Tech is a free stock collection which I’ve just discovered and will be plundering heavily.

But most of all, I want to emphasise the point that until I started working with BroadAgenda, I had – and I’m embarrassed to say it – never even noticed this. It just goes to show that sometimes the gendered nature of our own environment is often so well-established that we fail to see what’s wrong with it – even when it’s right in front of us.

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