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What images of women at work tell us about sexism

Posted at 6:15 AM, Feb 02, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-02 08:15:53-05

A single image can communicate a lot.

The photos a company uses on its recruitment website, social media channels or internal newsletters can send a powerful message to employees about the kind of person that’s rewarded and valued there.

A 2018 Pew study found women are underrepresented in Google image results for certain jobs and fields. You can probably guess which ones they are, based on our socialized ideas of what counts as “women’s work” versus what constitutes “men’s work.” In 2015, research from the University of Washington also examined Google image results for different professions and similarly found that in stock photos, website images and more, women aren’t depicted in certain professions as often as men are.

Cynthia Matuszek was one of those researchers, and she now works as an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She recently Googled “caregiver” — to return what she called depressing, if unsurprising, image results.

“Everything above the fold is all women — except for one guy feeding a panda — but the rest of it is all women taking care of either children or older people,” says Matuszek. “This has an effect, and it changes how people see things, and that’s something we should be aware of.”

Change on the ground

These images reinforce stereotypes about which skills men and women possess and what jobs they can do. In order to keep these unconscious biases in check, companies need to think about the images they use with more intention, says Julie Nugent, vice president of research at Catalyst.

“It is everything: from the imagery your company portrays, from the way you act on social media, to the direct actions of your employees,” she says. “These are all critical things, both internally with employees and externally with consumers in the marketplace. For companies that are smart, they’re going to be thinking about these things.”

As Nugent points out, internal things, like photos shared in office communication or even portraits on the walls of the workplace, can matter just as much as external efforts, like image choices for ads and marketing.

Michele Meyer-Shipp, chief diversity officer at KPMG, says diversity and inclusion leaders can play an important part in raising awareness of the problem, by then taking it to the decision makers in all departments. She says she’s learned to get comfortable calling out inaccurate representations.

“I will literally call someone in the marketing dept and say ‘Hey, that ad you put out? It’s all guys,'” she says. “We go with what we’re used to. We’ve been programmed with these images and we have to break that mold. That’s why it’s so important to have someone who’s got their eye on this, because they can help folks see it that may not know to even see it.”

Deutsche Post DHL Group, a mailing and logistics company with more than 500,000 employees, has tried to correct this balance within its own internal channels, sharing stories and images of women role models in different departments. In one recruiting spotlight on the companies website, a female employee working in the freight division described what she would advise women entering her field. “Size and gender make no difference,” she says. “Don’t let obstacles get in your way — these can be overcome.”

Stories like this can also help with recruitment efforts, says Susanna Nezmeskal, head of diversity and values at Deutsche Post DHL Group. When a prospective job candidate then visits the website, they know what a company values in its employees.

Real women, doing real work

Nezmeskal says real images from the working environment can say so much more than a simple stock or modeled image. Showing people who this employee is and why she was singled out can also shed some light on the ways different women do a variety of jobs within the company — things beyond the stereotypical “feminine” work.

“Use real pictures to show people ‘This is what happens in our company,’ and not just on a brochure or something,” Nezmeskal says.

Something as seemingly small as an image can have a far-reaching effect. Years of research proves diverse representation can affect children’s perceptions of work early on, even helping them to determine what careers and fields are welcoming to them. Meyer-Shipp remembers having a similar conversation with her son during his college tour experience.

“I was walking around, looking at the pictures on the wall and I was taking stock of the history of the firm, the past presidents of the campus, the past leaders of the team,” she says. “And I remember saying to my son, ‘I want us to find a place where there is diversity reflected in the campus community. And as I look at the images on the wall, I’m not seeing that.'”