Do We Really Know How to Identify Gender Stereotypes?

As a society we appear to be a bit more ‘woke’ to the issue of gender stereotypes than previous generations. And while there is a long road before us in solving the gender stereotyping which leads to bias, it’s at least topical. Yet one of the more pernicious challenges is that stereotypes run so deep we often can’t see the forest for the trees; and even our best efforts can backfire (great Stanford study reinforces this). It’s often what makes marketing to women so inexplicably hard.

Nothing brought home the way in which we are crushed by institutionalized bias than a simple task we tried to accomplish last week….

Dear Google: Please Show Us Stock Illustrations of Women Shopping

We were looking for stock illustrations of women shopping. That’s it. Simple. But slowly, after endlessly adjusting our search parameters, it was no longer just ‘women shopping’. We now were looking for illustrations of women shoppers who were also NOT cartoonish. Then we had to add ‘not wearing super short skirts’. And it was downhill from there to …. women-shopping-no-short-skirts-no-boobs-hanging-out. Gender stereotypes in full view.

For instance,

‘Barbie’ was EVERYWHERE.  Because of course shopping is an opportunity to show that cleavage….

stock images of women can be over sexualized

Shopping also seems to mean very long legs and equally microscopic skirts. Don’t be fooled by the artsy pencil style and hipster vibe….most shopping stock images showed women in short skits

And, heck, even being a pregnant shopper seamed to lend itself to rocking high heels and micro minis (said no pregnant woman ever…EVER).

Screen Shot 2019-01-24 at 1.34.15 PM

So, We Took a Deeper Look at Gender Stereotypes in Stock Illustration

The question for us became: are we searching wrong? Are we witnessing a stock illustration anomaly? What is it? So we did a few fresh searches to test a hypothesis that stock illustrations are chock full gender stereotypes.  We began our experiment with Shutterstock – a company with millions of images that prides itself as being a go-to for licensed creative content.  Here is how Shutterstock communicates it’s business. Specifically:

Shutterstock is a leading global provider of high-quality licensed images, videos, and music. Shutterstock helps inspire graphic designers, creative directors, video editors, filmmakers, web developers, and other creative professionals by providing diverse content to businesses, marketing agencies and media organizations around the world. Content creators contribute their work to Shutterstock, where end users buy and use it in a diverse array of creative personal and business projects. It’s a two-sided marketplace that empowers the world’s storytellers.

Now, consider the above when you think about how a pinch of bias can be so pervasive.  Like a disease… images that support a stereotype spread.  Thousands of businesses in hundreds of industries are using stock illustrations to communicate and promote their work. So even just one biased image can go far and wide (and far and wide again).

…And Started to Search Other Terms

So we decided to search a few different ways to see what bias we might be able uncover. Note: this is not a scientific study. You are only seeing a few select images…but it only really takes one, right? If it’s that easy to illustrate stereotypes…you don’t really need a scientific study to tell you much more (like…see what’s been uncovered about Wikipedia)

‘Business women in skirts vs. business women in pants’

Our first search delivered 12,206 results for ‘business women in skirts’ vs. 7,305 ‘business women in pants’.  So right off the bat we were seeing that the stereotype of a women in business was… that she wears a skirt.  Even when we searched for ‘women in pants’ the results also showed skirts. Is that our big ‘ah-ha’ … well stick with us here.

search results for women wearing pants

‘Women shopping vs. men shopping’

Circling back to our original search it appears that we generally define shopping as a female-led activity.  There were 228,563 results for ‘women shopping’ vs. 141,736 for  ‘men shopping.’ And even when we searched for ‘men shopping’ there were a whole lot of women in the picture. Regardless of whether you shake your head thinking about how little your partner shops or that women are the head of household commerce queens, it still kinda sucks.

men shopping

‘Story women vs. strong men’

As we dug deeper it became even more interesting. When we searched for ‘strong women’ there were 41,051 results and the theme was disproportionately focused on ‘yes we can’/empowerment type of image.  But ‘yes we can’ is really just the opposite of ‘someone told me I can’t.’ So these type of ’empowerment’ images really serve the opposite purpose in highlighting that a ‘strong’ woman is quite extraordinary rather than absolutely the norm.

strong women

Now when you search for ‘strong men’ there were a whopping three times the results.  It’s almost as if we simply equate men with the word strong. It’s as if it’s a natural description for the male being. The majority of those 115,811 illustrations were literally of muscles.  Our Rosie the Riveter image above might be flexing her muscle but it’s suppose to come as a surprise to us. By comparison ‘strong men’ is like ‘duh’ of course that is the result. While obvious gender stereotypes…so you have that moment of figuring how why it’s wrong? That’s the subtlety of it all.

strong men

‘Women working vs. men working’

Then we sort of stopped looking at the number of images (because really who cares if there are more ‘women working’ vs. ‘men working’ illustrations) and just compared what we saw. And even just a sampling shows what’s wrong in the gender bias world. Women are harried and trying to ‘balance’ it all. And, well, men they are just killing it. Mastering all subjects with a smile. Digital marketing…check.  Data analysis…check…check.

women working


men working

Just ‘leadership’

Then it came to crashing halt. We searched the term ‘leadership’ on Shutterstock.  At first glance, the image of the women seems empowering. It’s the ‘inner Superwoman’ in us all. But wait, look closer. The woman is tiny with an oversized sense of her self that doesn’t match reality.

The male image on the left also shows a strong sense of self. But it’s not mismatched in size to the real man. And (stating the obvious here) he’s  just congratulated himself for all that winning while she’s conjuring up some major cojones just to walk out the door. For him it’s easy, achievable and results in a win; for her we don’t know how the story ends. We just know she is mustering up the inner strength to go get it.

Unfortunately a lot of the female imagery we looked out is mean to empower but instead just reinforces the underdog stereotype. These images often are subtle reminders that society believes that power is not a natural state for women. For example we’ve personally purchased and celebrated the wonderful ‘girl power’ anthologies that are available  right now, such as the Rebel Girl books. But as Psychology Today aptly points out, books about ‘female visionaries’ can have the unintended consequence of suggesting that being a visionary is not a natural state. Otherwise we’d all be reading books about visionaries that were equal parts male and female.

Now We are Depressed…but Smarter

What is important about this exercise is the reminder that every day we all can make a difference.  So think before you grab that stock image and add it to your marketing materials. Consider your first response and whether it really delivers on true equality. Think about the message we send in everything we do each day.  While we strive for the grand gestures in swatting away inequality, it’s often the little things that clear the road and help us forge a path ahead.

2 Comments on “The Subtle Daily Reinforcement of Gender Stereotypes

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