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.