Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Teams Up with Getty to Revive Stock Images of Women

Can You Be It if You Can’t See It?

Sheryl Sandberg’s is partnering with the stock-photo giant Getty Images to provide a library of new images that better represent women.

Why does this matter?

Well, in Sandberg’s words, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

I think the problem is bigger than that, though. Even the roles that women are already filling, with competence and acceptance, are not represented in stock photo images. So, obviously, we CAN be what we can’t see. But how does not seeing ourselves affect us … all of us, young and old, male and female?

So What?

Not everyone finds this endeavour worthwhile. If you research the announcement online, you’ll see many comments questioning the need for new stock images. For example:

“This is so dumb …  if there was an incredibly pressing desire for this equitable stock-art as the media informs us there is, someone would already be producing this material and it would be a non-issue.” [Found here.]


“Let [’s] get on with our lives ladies and gentlemen. Men don’t compare themselves to advertisements or that ideal image that advertisers try to push down our throats. — we just say to ourselves ‘who cares it’s an advertisement.’” {Found here.]

Should we care about the images in stock photos?

I might not have thought so if I hadn’t gotten such a rude awakening last year when selecting photos for a new legal website.

I’d been hired to write new content for this website. The designer had already chosen and placed a raft of stock photos on the site under development. And the more I looked at the images, the greater my sense of disconnect with the realities of my client’s business and clientele.

When I broached the subject with my client, I realized that nobody else had noticed, including the designer.

“What’s the demographic of your clients?” I asked. “All the photos on your new site are of people in their early to mid twenties. Is that an accurate reflection of your client base?”

“No,” the client assured me, “all our clients are at least in their thirties. Most of them are in their forties or fifties.”

Once alerted to this disconnect, the client asked me to hunt down more representative photos.

But before I solved the age problem, I noticed another one.

The services page for their financial specialists pictured a male professional advising a couple across a shiny glass desk. But the two financial specialists I’d interviewed were women. Were they the exceptions? Is it a male-dominated profession? Back to the client.

“So, are most of your financial specialists men?” I asked.

“None of them are men,” my client informed me. “All women.”

I confess to you that, at this point, I had some petty thoughts about the designer’s competence. Why did they select images of young clients for an organization that serves older ones? And why did they place images of male professionals on pages that describe a female-dominated profession?

Then I started looking at stock photo sites. Go ahead, try it yourself. See how many photos you can find of non-twentysomethings. I’m here to tell you: not many.

And photos of women dispensing expert advice in a professional setting? Really, really hard to find. Believe me, I combed the Internet for hours.

Am I the only one looking for images that better represent women, of all ages, in a diversity of roles? Apparently not. Today’s NYT article reports that “the three most-searched terms in Getty’s image database are ‘women,’ ‘business’ and ‘family.’”

I did manage to find a few new images that added some age and gender diversity to the website. And by “diversity,” I really mean TRUTH. Because the financial specialists really ARE women. And the clients really ARE older.

But to this day, the photo on the financial specialist page depicts a handsome young man in a business suit pointing to a spreadsheet and explaining something to a beautiful young blonde woman wearing a t-shirt and jeans.

The folks at Getty and Lean In have selected 2,500 new images, and plan to keep adding to the library. I applaud them.

I’ll give Ms. Sandberg the last word.

“At Facebook, I think about the role marketing plays in all this, because marketing is both reflective of our stereotypes and reinforces stereotypes. Do we partner into sexism or do we partner against sexism?”