Lucy Kellaway: the photographic fiction of women at work

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a photograph that captures what real working women actually look like

If a company wants to show that it really values women  it will show pictures of them in which they don’t always look cool or gorgeous. They just look like professional women at work

If a company wants to show that it really values women it will show pictures of them in which they don’t always look cool or gorgeous. They just look like professional women at work

 

What do women look like at work? From my desk in an open plan office I have a good view of eight. The oldest is 50 something, the youngest about 25.

Some appear to have spent a decent amount of time in front of the mirror before coming to work – others less so. One has her hair in a messy ponytail and a cycling jacket on the back of her chair. A second is in astonishingly high heels and clad in black. A third (me) has grey showing on the roots of my hair and a smear of icing sugar on my leg. Some look as if they often go to the gym, others look as if they have never been in their lives.

All are sitting at desks, apart from one who has just walked by looking distracted, holding a cup of tea. Two are eating. No one is smiling. Everyone is staring at their screens, faces blank.

There is nothing terribly mysterious or surprising about this. It is what professional women look like at work in a newspaper office in London in 2016. Why I make such a meal out of describing it is that even though people endlessly write and think and talk about women at work, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a photograph that captures what real working women actually look like, or what they get up to.

Last week I finally got around to reading a 155-page McKinsey report called The Power of Parity. In it some of the finest brains in consultancy take on the topic of women in the labour force and reach the cheering – if implausible – conclusion that if only everyone would “prioritise action” in “the gender equality landscape” $12 trillion would be added to global growth.

The report is leavened by full-page photographs. One shows three sets of male legs in identical dark trousers and slightly infra dig loafers. In the middle of the line is a pair of slender, bare female legs stuck into high-heeled power pumps. The photo is cropped a couple of inches above the knee so it is hard to know how short the woman’s skirt is – or whether she is wearing one at all.

A second picture is a stock image of a working mother more luscious than a young Sophia Loren. She is holding a child and, just to prove she has an important job, is wearing a jacket and serious glasses and talking on a mobile phone.

Fit to burst

Over on the consultancy’s website things are not that much better. There is a pretty young woman with dark shiny hair, a plunging neckline and bare shoulders. She is smiling fit to burst. “Don’t just come to work. Come to change,” says the headline. Change what, I wondered.

Maybe the photographic fiction that everyone in corporate life is young and luscious and insanely happy wouldn’t matter if men and women were treated equally. Only they aren’t. On the Goldman Sachs homepage are seven male bankers and three female ones. Most of the men are senior people named and photographed as they work. There is Gary Cohn, chief operating officer, balding, grey and pictured talking earnestly. By contrast, the young anonymous women are total babes. Hair beautiful. Flesh on display. Smiles winning.

At my alma mater JPMorgan it is the same story. Insanely grinning women, all of whom could have had a great career in modelling had they not plumped for investment banking instead.

Join us, it says above a pair of pictures of a man and a woman. She is beautiful and black, with a brilliant wide smile, toned arms and a hint of cleavage. He is a regular white bloke. Thick neck, short back and sides and unconvincing smile.

High heels

A year ago Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook chief operating officer and author of Lean In , protested at the ludicrous stock images of working women found online. There was the woman in high heels climbing a ladder. The woman in business suit wearing a pair of red boxing gloves. And an even more baffling picture in which a female manager in stilettos is walking on the back of a male colleague.

To make things better she got together with Getty Images and launched the Lean In Collection. Superficially this is an improvement as there isn’t a stiletto in sight, no babies in briefcases, and best of all, some of the women are quite old. But in another way her pictures are even more misleading. In the Lean In world everyone is cool and beautiful. All women wear casual, arty clothes and are shot against creative backgrounds. All still look unfeasibly happy, save one or two who have intense expressions as if to convey that major acts of soulful creativity are going on within.

I look again at my colleagues. They are not smiling or looking soulful. They are working.

If a company wants to show that it really values women and wants to prioritise action in the gender equality landscape, it will show pictures of them in which they don’t always look cool or gorgeous. They just look like professional women at work.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016

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