When I heard earlier this week about Sheryl Sandberg's tie-up with Getty Images to create a library of photographs that "celebrate female empowerment and leadership", I had coincidentally just finished a conversation with another journalist about the way stock images of women are deployed by news outlets.
She was irked by a recent front page that had featured on its blurb a stock picture of a serene woman dressed in maternal white and a wedding band as she cradled a baby, while I was groaning at the use of a stock image of a frowning, sharp-shouldered “businesswoman” pushing her hands up against some glass.
The latter, which accompanied a thorough article about pay inequality in the legal profession, was meant to be a literal re-enactment of the “glass ceiling” – the metaphorical shorthand for barriers that prevent qualified, experienced women from reaching the upper levels of their chosen career. There was not much that was sexist about the image, but it did, like most stock photographs, smell of cheese. It also prompted me to wonder how the wacky world of stock imagery would contrive to depict a newer women-in-the-workplace metaphor: the so-called “sticky floor”.
We do not need Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, to point out that stock imagery can be sexist. For that, we have Tumblr accounts dedicated to stock photos of women "laughing alone with salad". Then there are the images of women wearing boxing gloves along with their business suits – a combination that suggests women who dare frequent offices for a living must possess aggression levels on a par with sparring fighters.
Few newspaper or digital publishers are immune from the stock stereotype problem, but a special mention must go to The Sunday Times for enjoying the "sexy secretary" variety as much as it has done over the years. Glamour magazine, meanwhile – for all the flak the women's glossies get for being a Trojan horse of sexism – at least has the wit to attach mocking captions to its stock photos.
Enter Sheryl. The visual language of Getty Images' new photo library, a collaboration with Sandberg's LeanIn.org, is a subtle but much-appreciated upgrade on the status quo. The collection's images of professional women, for example, include them in group office shots that quite clearly show at least one man listening attentively to a more senior woman colleague, who isn't necessarily wearing a boxy suit jacket from the 1980s Working Girl era. As Sandberg says, "you can't be what you can't see". Family life is also re-drawn so that men are shown engaging in various parenting activities, which they have been known to do.
Here’s where the limitations of the Lean In library rear their blandly photogenic heads: images are only ever as “positive” and “empowering” as their context. If pictures of fathers being fathers are used only in conjunction with stories about stay-at-home dads, rather than to illustrate broader parenting-themed articles, then Getty and LeanIn.org’s desire to “lead the visual conversation and effect real change” won’t be fully articulated.
The instinct to “correct” a prevailing stereotype can be taken to extremes, of course, and it would be a sad day if picture editors concluded that only men could ever acceptably cradle babies in newspapers. But the reason my colleague was one of three to separately lament the front-page mother-and-infant stock photograph in my presence was not because the image was annoying in itself. It was because it was placed so prominently in an edition of the newspaper that contained so few images of women in professional or leadership roles.
The proliferation of stock images is problematic in ways that the Lean In collection cannot solve on its own. Their use might mean a “real person” could not be located, persuaded to speak about their experiences and pose as a “case study”. More often, it means the media organisation did not choose to use their resources to attempt to talk to that real person.
So instead of the messy reality of human lives, we have unthreatening models of both sexes with white teeth and weed-free gardens. We have women, like no women you have ever known, laughing alone at salad, when frankly, there is nothing amusing about salad. And we have a “visual conversation” that is still largely about depicting women as mothers, victims and sex objects. As long as this is the case, initiatives like the Lean In collection will be welcome – for at least it tries to redress the balance, even if it will ultimately be the real-world advancement of women in politics, business and the media itself that counts.