The Problem with Women in Stock Photography (and How Freelance Writers Can Help)

January 4, 2017 Erin Ollila

freelance writers

I’ve been working on a post about workplace romance for the past few days, and it’s just about complete. I’m almost ready to submit it to my editor, but before I can do that, there are a few housekeeping issues I need to tend to, such as checking for spelling and grammar, making sure everything is formatted correctly, and finding and uploading stock photos. Sound familiar? Freelance writers are often the people responsible for adding images into their posts prior to publication. It’s a job that’s usually completed without much thought, but maybe it’s something we should be paying more attention to.

Back to my last-minute review of my post. My content is ready. I’ve fixed all the spelling errors, and all that’s left is finding a featured image. What’s the first thing you do when searching for images? As I often do, I use the keyword as my search term—and much to my dismay, my image options are, shall we say, extremely provocative. I was hoping I’d find two professionals; instead, what I find is NSFW, never mind something I’m comfortable submitting to my editor.

First, there’s a photo of a woman in high heels and a short skirt straddling a man under a desk. Next, a picture of a woman seated and looking visibly uncomfortable as a man hovers over her, one hand forcibly on her shoulder, the other hand inching down lower on her chest. Another of a woman sitting at a desk, shirt completely unbuttoned, black bra showing, with a man’s tightly closed hands pulling the shirt down past her elbows. The title on that picture is “Strong boss hands undress secretary shirt in office, lovers,” because of course she has to be his secretary, right? I could go on and on, but what you’ll find for an image search on “workplace relationships” are women without shirts, being touched inappropriately by men, or performing sexual acts on men in the office.

men and women's boots in the snow

Let’s be clear: I am no prude. But, after about 15 years working in an office, and more than one workplace relationship under my belt (excuse that pun), I can certainly tell you none of those images represents professional women fairly. And while I can embrace sexuality, I am a woman who is sick and tired of sorting through image after image of women being hypersexualized, degraded, or minimized in stock photography. So, what can I—and other freelance writers—do to change it?

Identifying the Problems with Stock Photography

The Hypersexualization of Women

I don’t think I need to do much more to convince you that women are overly sexualized in stock images, but if my one recent example didn’t convince you, let me guide you through my research for this post. I wanted to be sure I wasn’t being sensitive and simply assuming women were represented poorly, so I searched for the following terms (and many more), and this is what I found:

“woman boss” = This search term yielded high heels and skirts, women at desks with unbuttoned shirts, women leaning over men in low-cut shirts, women yelling at men (adding to the stigma of aggressive women in power).

“woman working out” = Oddly, only two of the first 200 photos are of women in the gym. The remaining 99 percent include women working, and mostly in the office. Maybe the search function read this keyword as women working out of the home, and that in itself implies so much. However, if you search “women fitness” you’ll find many sports bras with ample cleavage and women exercising with excess makeup.

“woman leading meeting” = In every row on the front page there is a picture of man leading a meeting and a picture of a woman leaning over a table in a v-neck or slightly unbuttoned blouse.

“women in politics” = Women in voting booths, women in crowds, women interviewing male candidates. In the first 100 photos, there is only one picture of a woman in a suit holding a microphone to address a crowd.

The Underrepresentation of Women in Male-Dominated Fields

While the hypersexualization of women is a huge problem in stock photography, it isn’t the only issue. Women aren’t represented as professionals in what are thought of as male-dominated fields. A quick search of “women in tech” or “women in sales” cultivates images of women reading on their tablets while snuggled under blankets on the couch or super smiley models holding 10 colorful shopping bags in each of their hands. However, when I search for “men in tech” or “men in sales,” photos appear of men writing code, building computers, and successfully selling products and services to consumers.

“When we see images of women and girls and men, they often fall into the stereotypes that we’re trying to overcome, and you can’t be what you can’t see,” Sheryl Sandberg told the The New York Times. In that same article, Cindy Gallop, founder of the US branch of the advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, said, “One of the quickest ways to make people think differently about something is to change the visuals around it. The thing about these images is they work on an unconscious level to reinforce what people think people should be like.”

So, when young girls are online consuming content from their favorite media sources, they need to see themselves in all different professions, or they won’t believe there’s a place for themselves there. Women need to be portrayed as doctors as well as nurses. There need to be visuals of women as scientists, construction workers, mechanics, engineers, politicians, pilots—and this list could easily continue.

Lack of women in technology and stock photos

Lack of Diversity

I’ve yet to mention diversity in this post, and that’s for one simple reason—every single women I mentioned in my examples above were Caucasian. Those promiscuous secretaries, cleavage-bouncing fitness models, and the one politician addressing a crowd were all white. There is a major lack of diversity across both genders in stock photography, and the lack of representation is staggering. No, I’m not suggesting that we need to sexualize women of all races and ethnicities. However, we do need to pause and consider why stock photography hasn’t diversified. If we’re using these images as part of our marketing measures, we’re excluding a huge portion of the population by not showcasing women of different shapes, sizes, and varying skin tones. Women also come in all ages, career levels, family situations, and physical abilities.

Diversity in stock photography

What Can Freelance Writers Do?

Practice Cognizance

As a child, I remember asking why there were no men modeling their underwear in the weekly store advertisements. There were pages of women showing off their bright white bras and lacy panties, but the men were almost always completely covered. I guess you could say I grew up with sexism. When something is normalized, it’s harder to recognize in the world around you.

Think about why we choose photos for our posts. Besides the fact that the human attention span is now shorter than that of a goldfish and an image breaks up the text, they’re also used because we want our readers to relate to our content, and visuals are a different medium for storytelling. If you’re writing a post about selling cars, you could include pictures of an orange, a beachside cabana, and a granite boulder—but you don’t, do you? Of course not. Instead, you share a photo of a man testing out his child’s car seat to make sure it fits and another of a woman holding her baby while shaking the salesperson’s hand on the side of the new vehicle.

We’re all responsible content creators, and we want our digital communications to stand out and perform well. We understand how much of an impact images can have over the post’s success. So why don’t we spend more time thinking about what to include?

Freelancers understand how much of an impact images can have over the post’s success. So why don’t we spend more time thinking about what to include?

It’s time for freelance writers to stop being so flippant about our choices of featured images. Yes, finding a photo is an added task, but it’s also a great responsibility. Instead of saving your image search for the very last thing you do, think about what you need to curate while writing. Know what you’re looking for before your search, and don’t choose the very first image you find. See if you can do better, because usually you can. This means making the decision to feature women of various ethnicities and races a priority. It also means questioning whether the women in your pictures are being sexualized in any way, and, if they are, find something else.

Commit to Using Good Photos

It’s easy to decide that you’re going to be more culturally inclusive and choose empowering images of women, but it’s a lot harder to actually find them on the internet. LeanIn.org, Sheryl Sandberg’s nonprofit, partnered with Getty Images to produce a library of stock images “devoted to the powerful depiction of women, girls and the people who support them.” This collection has over 6,000 images, featuring women from all walks of life, and it’s a great place to start.

If you’re looking for free stock photos, start with The Woman of Color in Tech. While the collection isn’t massive, there are many great pictures of women in meetings, the board room, coding, and reading tech books who aren’t white.

Committing to only using quality stock may even mean working with your client to create your own collection. Depending on the niche we’re writing in, freelance writers often have varying needs where images are concerned. Both Bustle and Refinery29 started shooting their own stock pictures when they realized their need was unfulfilled. In an article for Racked, Julie Alvin, Bustle’s deputy editor said, “We’re basically looking for a way to talk about vaginas and boobs without actually showing vaginas and boobs. We want our photos to be subtle. And the images you find on stock photography sites are really cheesy, and only have tall, skinny, white women.”

Be Vocal

Want to make a change? You can either quit your writing career to become a stock photographer, or you can take a stand. If we band together to stop using sexualized images, photographers will get the hint. They want their work to succeed, and they measure that in terms of sales. But, let me stop being idealistic and start being a little realistic. There will still be content creators that don’t care and these photos will still get used, which means we need to do more than just ignore bad stock.

An easier route to make a significant impact is to be vocal about your dissatisfaction with how women are being portrayed online. If you love a brand, but don’t love their choice of stock photography, let them know and be respectful about it. Send a Tweet or a quick email. There’s no need to boycott brands. Often, they aren’t involved in the minutiae of image selection. However, when they hear from their loyal customers or content consumers that they’re using sexualized or homogeneous images, they’ll likely take a second look. By bringing attention to the matter, you’ll get their attention. The key is to do so respectfully—or your voice will go unheard.

What do you think? Should content writers take a stand when it comes to sexualizing women and the lack of diversity in stock photography? Let’s continue this conversation in the comment section.

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