Picturing Women Leaders

I think a lot about how we learn.  For example, some people are visual thinkers.  People like this “think in pictures,” and learn to contextualize words by looking at images. Research by child development theorist Linda Kreger Silverman indicates that "real picture thinkers", i.e., people who use visual thinking almost to the exclusion of other kinds of thinking, make up about 30% of the population.

Another 45% of the population uses both visual thinking and thinking in the form of words, and just 25% thinks exclusively in words. As an example, we learned the word “banana” because someone pointed to it, we saw the banana (maybe even ate a bite), and then said the word.  We learned to use it in a sentence, to identify it amongst other fruits.  The image of the banana now has meaning to us; it’s not just a word.

In my work, I have often searched for professional photographs of nurses, dental technicians, teachers or lawyers to use with websites, brochures and other materials.  Finding quality images of these professionals on stock photo websites or Google is at best, a challenge.  Most often, you will find a nurse (we know this because she is wearing scrubs and has a stethoscope) facing the camera, with a clipboard in hand.  This type of photo is known as a decorative portrayal.  When people are depicted in photos, they are either actively involved, or passively “decorating” the subject/product.  The nurse with a stethoscope around her neck is both decorative and passive; the nurse monitoring a patient’s vital signs by using a stethoscope is active. Decorative roles subtly represent society’s view of the appropriate place for women in society: being passive and pretty.

Part of my frustration in trying to find accurate and appropriate photos is with the captions or search words, which are written to make it easy for the search engine to find the images.  What is the message of our culture that all the captions of photos of women in scrubs with a stethoscope are identified as nurses? Men in scrubs are identified as “surgeons,” and “young doctors.”

It is not just stock photo websites.  When you search Google, Yahoo or Bing images, this decorative imagery is pervasive and attaches to all women, regardless of profession.  A woman standing in front of a chalkboard with an apple in hand is a teacher and nearly all of the photos are women.  A man standing in front of a chalkboard displaying a complicated math problem is a professor and nearly all the photos are of men.

Searching for business owners will yield a more equitable gender split, however the women are all holding “open” signs for retail businesses, the men are at desks looking at papers or a computer.  Again, women are decorative, not serious business people or entrepreneurs.

Stock photos are designed for advertising and marketing and influence our culture in ways that are both subtle and overt.  When we search for photos of "women leaders" or "women leadership," we always find women who are young, attractive, wearing business suits, posing with their arms crossed in front of them.  I found one with a woman wearing glasses (to make her seem smarter?) also holding a clipboard.  I'm still uncertain what message the clipboard conveys.

Beyond stock photos, it is troubling when you search for "great leader" on Google, Yahoo or Bing and find that 99% of images are men.  Mother Teresa appears sometimes, along with Oprah Winfrey or Margaret Thatcher, but to find more examples, you have to click on the "women leaders" subcategory.  Apparently, women are leaders, but not "great" ones.

Why does this gender stereotyping continue?  Because we make no effort to change it.  We aren't paying attention to the messages we are sending out.  To change the archetype, we must evaluate every image used in association with our own projects, partnerships and businesses. As foundations, schools, government organization, and business leaders, we must take responsibility for challenging people and organizations when they engage in this subtle form of gender stereotyping. We must insist that the photos and copy in our institutions’ marketing speak to the reality of women in the 21st century.  We must flood the Internet with photos of real women doing real work.  

Without a clipboard.


Endangered species or thriving organization?

For several months last year, my middle school son worked on his first major research project. He had to choose an animal, learn about its habitat, and write a comprehensive report. As is his style, he didn’t write about a leopard or a wolf or anything familiar. Instead, he chose a very unusual creature—the axolotl.

Sometimes known as the Mexican walking fish, this salamander is a favorite of amphibian lovers, because it is unique and has been a very adaptable creature. For example, unlike frogs and toads that transform from water- to land-dwelling as they grow older, axolotls keep their gills and fins and live in water. This adaptation may have been in response to a reduction in the availability of food on land, or some hostile threat that forced them to stay underwater.

In contrast, when the axolotl is in captivity, it will often spend more time out of the water, and as a result the gills will be absorbed into the body, the lungs will mature and the creature becomes more suited to the new environment.  One of the more unique features of the axolotl is its ability to regenerate entire body parts, including whole limbs, gills, eyes, kidneys, even large portions of its liver and its heart muscle. Lose a leg in a battle with an enemy? Grow a new one!

In the wild, axolotls live only in Lake Xochimilco near Mexico City.  Unfortunately, this natural habitat is rapidly deteriorating because of human activity. Agrochemicals from nearby farms and wastewater from the Mexico City sewage system are polluting the lake. It is also shrinking, as much of the marsh areas have been drained to create more landmass for the encroaching city. Adding to the shrinking lake and the pollution is the threat of large tilapia and carp fish farms. Tilapia farming began in the lake about 20 years ago and these hardy fish now dominate the lake, crowding out axolotls. With all these threats, the axolotl is critically endangered and at risk of existing only in captivity.

You might think that these unique abilities to adapt—living in water, living on land, growing new limbs—would ensure their survival.  So why are axolotls near extinction? Because although they are unique and special animals, it’s not clear what their unique value is to those who could help them. Because there’s a difference between being unique and having unique value.

Unique value is what you bring to the world, different from the contribution that someone else brings. Articulating this unique value is perhaps the most important thing you can do in advancing your cause and keeping your work going in the long run. What do you uniquely bring to the community? What is the difference you are making—and how do you know? Answering these questions will make it easier to make decisions about what to do next, to make a case for funding support, to achieve the change that you seek, and ultimately to survive and thrive for the long haul.

Like the axolotl, there are many environmental threats to your success—lack of funding, changes in leadership, issue fatigue, communications challenges. You can have a unique and special project or partnership, but what will help that project stand out in a competitive environment? Learning to refine your ability to articulate your unique value is essential to sustaining long-term impact. Your goal is to ensure that, unlike the axolotl, your work and your partnerships are not critically endangered.