On March 8, people all over the world celebrate International Women’s Day to mark the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women. The meaning of the day should resonate with anyone who has a mother, a wife or a girlfriend, daughters, sisters or anyone close to their heart who identifies as a woman. It is a day to recognize how far we have come in achieving gender equality. But it is equally important to recognize how much work there is left to be done, not only globally, but right here in the US.
Women make up for 51 percent of the US population but only 19 percent of the 115th Congress and 21 percent of the Senate. And women make up for 48 percent of the workforce but only about 15 percent of the directors in corporate boardrooms. And the representation is even more disproportional when it comes to women of color.
The same holds true in the workplace. Although women now earn more college degrees than men at every level — from bachelors to PhDs — they are still out-earned by men with similar levels of education and work experience. And they are greatly outnumbered in the STEM fields. According to the Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey, women comprise only 24 percent of workers in STEM fields. When looking through education, during K-12 both boys and girls enroll in STEM classes in more or less comparable rates. The gap widens in higher education. According to the National Science Foundation 2016 study, the gender gap is biggest when it comes to degrees in the computer sciences (18 percent of graduates are women) and engineering (19 percent of graduates are women).
“You can’t be what you can’t see” is a quote often attributed to Marie Wilson (the White House Project). It powerfully describes the challenge women and minorities grow up with and are subjected to: the lack of female and minority representation in the tables of power.
Autodesk is a powerful forerunner in the field of 3D design software. Designers at Autodesk can make a big difference by choosing to use imagery that includes female engineers, machinists, and anyone else who uses our software. Same with minorities: we can select the imagery that rejects the stereotypes and embraces equality. And design managers can commit to supporting the goal of creating a collection of imagery that aims to empower women and minorities.
While the causes for the gender gap are multi-faceted, one thing is clear: the lack of representation reinforces the imbalance of power. According to a study published in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (Volume 49, Issue 3, May 2013) when taking part in public discussions and debates women tend to talk shorter periods of time and are interrupted more often by both men and women. However, a significant difference was noticed when a picture of a strong female role model was visible to the female speakers. In the study, 149 male and female students gave a public speech while having either a picture of Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, Bill Clinton, or no picture taped to the back of the room. When women could see an image of a strong female role model they spoke more confidently, tolerated fewer interruptions, and spoke longer diminishing the gender gap to almost non-existent.
Misrepresenting minorities is equally troublesome: negative stereotypes pigeonhole us into roles we end up adopting after we start believing we are what is being projected on us. The effect can be subtle. We are so used to seeing the image of a white male engineer that we default to this stereotype without thinking. And we default to stereotypes to ensure that our audience can feel comfortable in identifying with the imagery they’re seeing, thus reinforcing the cycle that leaves women and minorities without an opportunity to imagine themselves in that scenario.
The effect goes beyond Autodesk customers. While we can have a direct impact on people who see our marketing materials and visual communications, we also have an indirect impact to stock photo services. Anyone who has ever tried to find stereotype free images of minorities knows how challenging that can be. But if that is the imagery we are repeatedly looking for, and that is the imagery we invest in, the demand will guide the offer. And lastly, when we train ourselves to spot the misrepresentation of minorities and women in images we are training our brain to spot the injustice out there in the society, and we become walking, talking advocates for the change.
What can you do immediately?
The steps towards using empowering imagery are small but can feel uncomfortable. First, we need to learn to recognize and acknowledge our own biases. Without understanding what reinforces a stereotype and what can break that cycle we cannot actively work to promote equality. Next, we can turn a critical eye to the visual language we use in our work and make wiser choices. And finally, as advocates, we can have these conversations with our managers, peers, clients, and stakeholders about the organization’s culture and depictions of women and minorities. We must become comfortable about calling out the stereotypes in our peers’ work and be open-minded in receiving that same feedback.
Now that you know what to do, visit these specialized collections to find imagery that seeks to break the stereotypes:
- Lean In Collection by Getty Images: Jointly curated by LeanIn.org and Getty images, this collection focuses on authentic depictions of women and girls.
- Colorstock: A stock photo marketplace that features people of color.
- Blend Images: Founded by our Shalom Ormsby (General Assembly) and managed by industry veterans, Blend specializes in ethnically diverse, culturally relevant imagery.
- Offset (by Shutterstock): Offers high-quality imagery curated from international artists and award-winning photojournalists.