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Lean In’s Stock Image Campaign Does More for Sheryl Sandberg’s Critics Than the Feminist Cause

Unequal pay. Biased hiring practices. Internal barriers to rising through the ranks. Too many photos of ladies climbing things? Lean In’s latest initiative, a partnership with Getty Images on a special collection of 2,500 images showing women of all ages, sizes, and ethnicities engaged in tasks like looking out windows and doing CrossFit, forgoes the latter pressing issues in favor of the former. It’s true that representation of women could always use more realism and less salad. But the Getty partnership is a single (literally) cosmetic fix for about seven different structural issues. Not only does the initiative bring a gun to a snarky Tumblr fight; it’s a near-perfect embodiment of the criticisms leveled at Lean In since it began touting itself as something more than Seven Habits of Highly Effective People for the post-Facebook age. 

Announced in the New York Times this Sunday, the Getty Images initiative aims to chip away at stereotypes by changing the way women are presented in ads, magazines, and other media providers that fill their pages with Getty’s product. In an interview with The Cut, LeanIn.org editor Jessica Bennett explains the thinking behind the project: “We wanted workplace images and images of girls, but most importantly we wanted characters and subjects who had agency. Women in powerful poses. Some of the women in the workplace are literally leaning in, leading discussions, in standing positions.”

Bennett’s right when she notes that the hundreds of images women consume and internalize every day shape our expectations of what we can and should be. And if the Getty initiative can successfully promote the notion that women can, in fact, own bakeries and ride surfboards and age past 50 through the power of suggestion, more power to it. The problem doesn’t necessarily stem from the partnership itself; it’s the gap between the small but well-intentioned step of providing Getty clients with the option of running non-absurd images of women and Lean In’s stated goals.

In her excellent takedown “Facebook Feminism, Like It Or Not,” Susan Faludi highlights the extraordinary hype surrounding Lean In, both from outside parties and Sandberg herself. The author billed the organization’s namesake book as “sort of a feminist manifesto”; Time described Lean In as “an ambitious mission to reboot feminism.” Faludi, along with many other detractors, contrasts that rhetoric with Sandberg’s actual advice, which tends to focus more on what individual women can do to work within existing workplace norms rather than changing them. A look at Lean In’s blog doesn’t help its case much; recent spotlighted articles include “Sitting Tall: Letting Go of Ego to Get Ahead” and “How to Close the Gender Gap at Work? Strike a Pose.”

Faludi is especially critical of Lean In’s corporate partnerships, most of which involve minimal commitment on the part of the sponsor in return for the PR payoff that comes with expressing nominal support for workplace equality. (These “partners” include Wal-Mart, which narrowly avoided a massive class-action sex discrimination suit in 2011.) That brings us back to Getty initiative, which may require more of its “partner” than the average Lean In project, but reflects the flaws in Sandberg’s approach better than anything the book/website/quasi-movement has done thus far.

By working to alter images of women rather than the experiences those changes reflect, the Lean In Collection literally chooses surface over substance. Yes, it’s a problem that we don’t often see female paramedics or soldiers or even gamers, all professions and pastimes rendered in excellent quality throughout the Collection. But it’s a bigger problem that women are underrepresented in many of those professions in the real world. And even though Lean In is supposedly the project of a female CEO working to help other women reach her level of professional success, the nonprofit spends precious little time targeting some of the reasons why so few have.

Bennett even touches on the issue in her interview with The Cut“The larger problem is that the majority of art directors and the majority of photographers are men,” she explains. “I read in Fast Company that only 3 percent of creative directors are women, and then we know what the numbers look like in Hollywood and journalism.” So, sexist industries create sexist content. But rather than targeting the norms in advertising, casting, or media that keep women, and therefore images made for or by them, out of decision-making roles, Lean In opted to work with a preexisting archive to designate which photos deserve to be labeled “empowering.” An archive that’s the product of a deeply biased industry that could use the further-reaching reforms that Lean In consistently shies away from advocating.

Ironically, the most promising part of the Getty initiative is also the least publicized. Along with the Lean In Collection, Getty is also offering a pair of grants in editorial and creative photography for original work focusing on “women, girls, and their families and communities.” It’s not quite a hard look at why most photography doesn’t represent women’s lived experience in the first place, but it’s a proactive effort to change it using the best incentive there is: cold, hard cash. It’s a more meaningful commitment to advancing Lean In’s supposed aims than simply putting Sandberg’s stamp of approval on a subset of photos — and inspires hope that someday, more than a thousandth of a percent of Getty’s stock image reserves will deserve that approval.

Of course, convincing companies to contribute real money to gender equity, whether through grants or just paying more women to work for them, is more difficult than two friends deciding to partner up over drinks, as Bennett and Getty image anthropologist Pam Grossman did. But until Lean In starts dedicating more resources to issues more pressing than a dearth of woman-led (fake) board meetings, it will simply show its detractors were right all along: Lean In is less a “movement” than a mutual PR backrub between a former executive and a collection of current ones. The burden’s on Sandberg to prove them wrong.

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