Suggestive female colleague - gender bias-24

Why the creative industries need to up their game to promote the inclusive workplace

Recenty I was editing some content on how to cope in a crisis as part of Mental Health Awareness Week. I was searching for some stock imagery to demonstrate a key tip – make strong relationships at work and at home. I was compelled to write this post because as an industry we need to make a much more concerted effort to address the stereotypes and biases that are currently inherent in image and video libraries if we are to progress in making workplaces inclusive.

Gender bias in image searches

This is the first image that showed up from my search on Shutterstock using the search term “strong relationships workplace”. Most definitely not the message I was trying to convey. I was shocked at how sexist these images were and promoted gender stereotypes rather than peer-to-peer colleague working relationships.

Provocative female colleague - gender bias

I tweaked the search terms hoping to find a more suitable image. This time I searched “strong relationships at work”. The first image was a generic handshake, the second was a cliched statement on a notebook, and the third was this photo – a dominant tall woman holding her short male colleague by the tie.

Confident woman - gender bias

Check out “CEO” on a Google Image Search – about 30 men and then a picture of a female CEO Barbie, as highlighted in this post by econlife. Women are significantly underrepresented in Google image search results and it can influence people’s perceptions and behaviour as commented on in this study. While women account for 27% of CEOs in the US, only 11% of the top 100 Google image research results return women, found the University of Washington study.

 Screen capture CEO search term on Google
Promoting accessibility in images

Recently I was helping a colleague source imagery ahead of Global Accessibility Awareness Day. We wanted to show the variety of technologies now on offer to help people with any kind of disability. So many of the pictures were of a person in a wheelchair with an iPad. It certainly didn’t represent any of the kind of innovation that is actually happening in the accessibility market nor how technology is helping people with a range of disabilities that people are coping with on a daily basis. Almost one in seven of us has a disability according to WHO. See this excellent piece on Fast Company which looks at how accessible tech helps people living with disabilities, highlighted in Apple’s recent “Designed for Everyone” campaign.

Now let’s move on to B-roll.

A couple of weeks ago I was working with a video content producer to create a video on digital transformation. After viewing the video a few times I noticed there were hardly any women in the b-roll segments. A quick tally showed a ratio of 17 men to 2 women in the 3 minute clip. We were also trying to find a senior female leader in a boardroom scenario talking about technology. The search took hours! The number of clips that had women in subordinate positions, or dressed provocatively, or as a secretary rather than a female leader was overwhelming. When I asked the video content producer about it, he explained that there weren’t enough companies and freelancers posting b-roll that depicted gender diversity in their clips.

What is the industry already doing?

  1. Image Grants

A couple of years ago, LeanIn.Org worked with Getty Images to create a powerful library of images devoted to the depiction of strong women, girls and the people who support them. A portion of proceeds from the Lean In Collection will go toward the creation of Getty Images grants for images showcasing female empowerment and to supporting the mission of LeanIn.Org.

  1. Using data to uncover unconscious bias

With support from, the Geena Davis Institute worked with machine learning engineer Hartwig Adam and USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering Dr Shri Narayanan, to develop software that measures how often we see and hear women on screen. The results were shocking.

Men are seen and heard nearly twice as often as women in the 100 highest grossing (US domestic) live-action films between 2014-16.

The findings were unveiled to producers, executives, screenwriters and actors to raise awareness and help them to improve gender balance in their movies. A survey that followed a presentation on this research, found that 68% of filmmakers reconfigured two or more of their projects after hearing the numbers, and 41% percent stated that it had impacted four or more of their movies.

As Geena Davis said, “it has been proven to us that data is the most incredibly powerful tool for uncovering unconscious bias and for convincing people to do something about it” 

  1. Hacking Images from the Inside and changing algorithms 

Dove and Mindshare in Denmark have also teamed up to create a campaign called Image Hack. Mindshare collaborated with photographers to create strong, independent and original women in non-stereotypical settings. “The pictures were uploaded to stock sites and tagged to alter their algorithms, and then encouraged agencies and advertisers to use these images to portray women equally in their ads,” explained Mindshare’s creative director Kenneth Kaadtmaan.

1,729 images were downloaded and 42 brands in Denmark used them in their own advertising in one week, with only $10,000 in media spend. Dove then extended the campaign in a more consumer-orientated way using some of the models from Image_Hack in its advertising.

We need more brands to ‘hack’ stock sites so we can alter search results, break down stereotypes and promote an inclusive workplace. Collectively as an industry, agencies, content producers, photographers, advertisers – we need to work together to demand and produce content that represents diversity and inclusivity.


Written by Naomi Longworth, Practice Director, Corporate and Business.

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