Women Smiling With Salad - @modernb2b
Women Smiling With Salad

Last week I did a Google search for images of ‘female’ CEOs and was shocked at the results that came back.  With the rising number of CEOs of global companies, including Oracle, HP, Xerox, Yahoo, GM, Lockheed Martin and Pepsico, I would have thought there would have been better results.

Instead of images showing these women as credible presenters, genuine people, doing their job and being serious doing it (not laughing or smiling sweetly), I was presented with a mixed bag of images, including a woman with her feet up on a desk, a woman in sports kit in the office and far too many women cocking their head into submission and looking pretty with low cut blouses.

The same search for men, yielded completely different results.  The men were serious, looking powerful and authoritative and there were certainly no gratuitous shots of flesh.

It makes me sad.  And you wonder why women feel they need more positive role models and lobbying groups such as Women on Boards driving womens’ agendas in Whitehall?

It made me think about a discussion we had in the office a few weeks back about the Tumblr Women Laughing Alone With Salad.  There’s much debate on the topic, with some saying that this type of imagery is compounded by magazine editors choosing it and therefore that’s what the stock libraries give them.

That said, my search wasn’t on a stock library.  It was on Google – which compiles images from websites, news sources and stock libraries – and the visuals that the search throw up, really weren’t that much better.

Women in Google Search

For the women, the images are wide smiles with lots of teeth, far too many tilted heads and surprisingly windy offices and conference centres as hair blows behind them.  They’re a touch contrived, often lacking in authority with just a sniff of sexiness about them.   Go further down the page (outside of this clipping) and you’ll find women sitting at their desk in their sports kit or with their feet up, and yes, the shots do get a lot sexier.

And the men?

Male boardroom Google Search

There are more serious poses, men at conferences speaking or looking straight to camera with a light smile.  There are hardly any teeth to be seen and certainly no wind blowers on their wavy locks. To even things out, there are a few amusing images like the one with baby in a sling (multitasking) and the CEO with a Mohican haircut.

For me, the problem I had was that I wanted to provide an illustrator with a selection of female personas to use as a basis for a drawing that suggested a positive role model where success was based on ability, not on looks, physique or sexiness.  What surprised me was that it was harder than I thought, even with the female CEOs that grace our top global businesses.

Only 5% of the Fortune 500 companies have a female CEO. In the UK, we have 5 women at the helm of FTSE 100 companies (a similar percentage to the US).

So why not more positive imagery? One day, I’ll hope that the woman laughing alone with salad will be a thing of the past.  What are your thoughts?

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  1. Preface: This comment became so long, it needed a preface. I’m going to ignore the edge-cases of sports kit, feet on desks and baby slings; both searches have them and they’re not typical. Instead I’ll mainly focus on the general trend of picture styles.

    This is a cyclical, self-reinforcing problem. On the one-hand, you have a society that judges women on appearance (and men, to be fair, but they’re judged against different criteria – more on that shortly). On the other-hand, you have women, being photographed, that want to portray an image that will be judged favourably.

    If women tried to portray the same strength and confidence you see in the male portraits, the pictures will tend to attract negative comments. Phrases like “sour-faced”, “hard-nosed bitch” and “ball breaker” get thrown around. Mostly, women want to avoid such labels and, as a result, try to conform to a softer image.

    This is peer-pressure at its most classic. Women judge other women in this way as much as, if not more than, men do. There are a few who are willing to step outside of their comfort-zones and break the mould, but on the whole, women are happy to conform when portraying an image.

    I’d like to flip this problem around though; why do male CEOs feel the need to present themselves as so very boring and serious all the time?

    It’s the same problem, just in reverse. Most of these men have children, and I bet a significant proportion of them have blown raspberries on a giggling child at some point in their lives, but you publish a picture of a male CEO giving a toothy grin, or with their hair in disarray, then they get labelled “unprofessional”, “a clown” and “frivolous”. They have to look terribly serious in order to be respected. Why can’t they show that they’re human? Why can’t they show that they aren’t just autonomous business-running machines?

    To be honest, I don’t know which is worse, that women can be seen as serious business folk, or that men can’t be seen as human. They’re both pretty bleak outcomes.

    The thing is, people judge en masse, and those who judge are vocal. There are many who don’t judge, but they don’t stand-up and say, “my, that lady looks very respectable” – they just accept the image and think nothing more of it. Critically, they are not moved to comment. On the flip-side, judgemental people are very vocal and like to spread their opinions around.

    Taken as a whole, society only really voices negative opinion, so there is never going to be a way of breaking the cycle from the judgemental side. This leaves the individual being pictured to step out of their comfort zone and declare that they don’t care the for opinion of the judgemental masses, and portray themselves as they see fit. To say, “this is me, take it or leave it”. The only way to break peer pressure is to not care for it. This is true at every stage and walk of life, from the school yards, to retirement homes and from building sites, to board rooms. Peer pressure is everywhere and you can either be brave and defy it, or be meek and succumb to it.

    I was going to leave it there, but I’m going to be brave and ask a personal question. You’re an MD (assuming this isn’t ghost-written), in a position of business seniority; in light of what you’ve written above, are you planning to review your linkedin profile image? I couldn’t help noticing the winning smile, the slight tilt to the head, the exposed neck and shoulders…

    Personally, I wonder if the serious-looking image is just a relic of the past that’s busy going the way of the dinosaurs. I wonder if corporate portraits are evolving a more human aspect, and that this change is being led by women.

  2. I noticed a typo that completely changes the sentiment of the sentence that it’s in; there’s a “can” that should be “can’t”…

    To be honest, I don’t know which is worse, that women _can’t_ be seen as serious business folk, or that men can’t be seen as human. They’re both pretty bleak outcomes.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Dug.

    I’m going to keep this short. You’ve covered much of the debate that was going around my head when I wrote the post. It is self-perpetuating and it will be a long time until we move away from it.

    With regard to my LinkedIn profile shot – you made me laugh! My head isn’t tilted, the photographer tilted the camera. And the beaming smile comes naturally and it was a baking hot summer day. Yes, I wrote the post and yes, I’m an MD of a small agency, not a global company. I do have another shot, a little more corporate that would be more fitting for when I am that global CEO, but for those that meet me now, the LinkedIn profile more accurately reflects me.

    I think women can be seen as serious business people, I just don’t think they’re reflected that way when it comes to the images of them. By the way, you look pretty human to me. ;o)

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