Lean In, Getty Images tackles sexist stock photos

There are nearly infinite stock photos available for advertisers to use on billboards, brochures and other media, and for the most part, anything and everything imaginable can be found. What can be difficult to find, however, are images of modern women, young and old alike.

Instead, one tends to find hackneyed and awkward women cooking, cleaning or taking care of children. Sheryl Sandberg, co-founder of Lean In, an organization devoted to encouraging women to pursue their own personal ambitions, has partnered with Getty Images in order to combat these old-fashioned, stereotypical portrayals of women. Their end goal is simple but powerful: to give a wider, more diverse portrait of the women in today’s society.

Getty Images is one of the largest providers of stock photos today, so it would seem only logical that the photos of women would be varied, distinct and, most of all, true-to-life. This should be especially true considering the fact that the term “women” is among the top three of all terms searched. However, this modern woman is scarcely seen in the thousands of stock photos available. In fact, the images available are extremely stereotypical and unrealistic.

Type in the term “businesswoman” in the Getty Images database, and pictures of a woman in a power suit carrying a briefcase dominate the results. Type in “working out,” and nearly every woman has a full face of makeup despite supposedly engaging in strenuous, sweaty activities. Here the emphasis is clearly not on the actual action but rather on presenting the image of a model-esque woman who merely happens to be working out. Some of the images are even comical, so much so that they have gone on to become Internet memes. “Women laughing alone with salad,” which is exactly what it sounds like, is a salient example.

It is this type of shallow portrayal that caused Sandberg and Lean In to team up with Getty Images. Gone are the pictures of power suits; women in modern, casual business attire have arrived to take their place. Little girls are no longer only shown playing with dolls or princess crowns; instead they are also skateboarding or tinkering with chemistry sets. There are now pictures of women in traditionally or stereotypically male professions and hobbies: performing surgery, fixing a car, hunting and the like. Even with this great variety of photos, they all have one commonality: a portrayal of a modern woman going about her life, whatever that might entail.

It could be argued that there are more pressing gender issues to address, such as attempting to actually supply men and women with equal pay. However, Ms. Sandberg raises an excellent point in an interview with the New York Times: “…you can’t be what you can’t see.” Through the efforts of this partnership, younger and older generations alike will become exposed to images of women in every sort of profession and situation.

This exposure just might have the power to propel women to start looking past the underlying sexism in the outdated stock photos and to realize that they can do whatever they want. A young girl might see a photo of a woman as an engineer and decide for herself that’s what she wants to become. This is exactly the sort of impact that Ms. Sandberg and Lean In are hoping to make.

Although Lean In focuses primarily on helping women achieve career ambitions, the group’s goals reach far beyond the professional world. They aim to inspire women to focus in all aspects of life not on what they cannot do, but on what they can do. This shift in focus is precisely what the new stock photos portray. These images are showcasing a new type of woman, one who fights against gender-specific stereotypes. Given the range of these stock photos and today’s media-centric society, this could, ultimately, be a brilliant step in just the right direction.

Madisen Egan ’16 eganm@stolaf.edu is from St. Paul, Minn. She majors in English and biology.