Stock Photography and Sexism in STEM Imagery

By Brooke Hodess

This year’s spate of Super Bowl Sunday advertisements had its fair share of feminist-leaning spots, including the favored “Like a Girl” from feminine products company Always, the Mindy Kaling-featured “Invisible” for Nationwide insurance, and the anti-domestic violence PSA courtesy of the No More campaign and the National Football League.

While some in the feminist community have balked at the co-opting of women’s empowerment by advertisers to sell products, others recognize that targeting women is economically wise as 85 percent of all brand purchases are made by women.

© Jody Asano/Shestock
© Jody Asano/Shestock

However, in a survey by, 91 percent of women said they don’t think advertisers understand them. The “paint it pink” approach no longer (if ever) speaks to women and girls.

In that same vein, when it comes to imagery in male-dominated fields like STEM (Science, Technology, Electronics and Math), sexism and gender stereotypes prevail. Stock photography company Shestock and communications researcher Lee Chapman are working to change that.

Founded in 2013 by Karen Beard, the Northern California-based Shestock, according to its website, “aims to provide insightful and inspired visions of the real lives of real women.” The company was motivated by equal parts frustration at the existing sexist imagery and the optimism that they could do something about it. One of those things is educate the stock photography community and repair a long-broken dialogue between marketers and their female target audiences.

© Leah Fasten/Shestock
© Leah Fasten/Shestock

Last summer, Shestock hosted a webinar with Lee Chapman, a then-master’s degree candidate in Digital and Visual Communications at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario, to discuss her research project “Girls on Film: Gender Representation in STEM Photographs.”

Chapman looked at 800 STEM stock images and her findings focused on two themes: the frequency of females and males in STEM stock photography and the allocation of leadership roles among males and females in STEM stock photography.

In the first theme, 52 percent of the photos had male-only models, 22 percent female-only, 13 percent equal, 6 percent more men than women and 2 percent more women than men.

In the second theme, 58 percent of the data set had a male model as the lead role, 37 percent had a female model as the lead role, and 5 percent were equal. A lead role was defined by having dominant body language (e.g., arms crossed, making the body big, hands on hips), pointing or directing another person to do something, being closest to the camera or making eye contact with the camera, and/or holding higher status position (e.g., a doctor vs. a nurse).

Within the specific STEM fields, males dominated the lead role in science, technology and engineering with 58 percent, 57 percent and 56 percent, respectively. Math was the only area where females dominated the lead role at 46 percent, but with much of the math imagery additionally tagged with “education,” a lot of the lead role models were teachers, a long-standing female-dominated industry.

Overall, Lee’s research shows STEM images promote male leadership. “When these images are consumed repeatedly over time, what sort of constructions does that make in our minds?” Lee asks.

In Cultivation Theory, seeing is believing, and, said Chapman, “repeated consumption of fictional or non-fictional scenes in the media will cultivate the belief that said themes are accurate depictions of reality.” Applying this same theory to Chapman’s research, Beard notes we aid in the underrepresentation of females in STEM a reality simply through gender-biased stock photos.

Said Beard, “Chapman’s research for the first time showed the depth of sexism in a growing area of commercial imagery through objective study.”

In addition, the event last summer celebrated Shestock’s kickoff of building a new collection of STEM imagery.

When asked if these images represent the reality of women in STEM (and other male-dominated industries) or if it’s a kind of laziness or blatant sexism on the part of the photography industry, Beard replied, “I think that sexism in existing STEM stock imagery is primarily the result of cultural sexism creeping into creative and purchasing decisions, to a large degree because males have dominated that decision making as photographers, producers and buyers, but also by females who adopt a male-centric view because they think that is required.”

And the statistics on STEM occupations illustrate why this matters. While women make up half of the workforce, they were only 26 percent of the STEM workforce in 2011 (United States Census Bureau, September 2013) and projections suggest that STEM-related job opportunities will grow nearly 17 percent over the next decade (STEM Advantage, 2014).

© Kerry Varnum/Shestock
© Kerry Varnum/Shestock

“Developed countries are not producing enough workers for the projected growth in STEM fields,” says Beard, “and at the same time we see a dramatic decline in girls focusing on STEM after they reach adolescence.” She continues, “Their aptitude is generally higher than males in STEM, so the answer lies in part in how they see themselves in these fields—and that is where imagery comes in.”

Beard suggests to create gender-balance in imagery, image makers can have female subjects display confident body language, make eye contact with the camera, and show guidance to whoever else is in the photo.

“I believe that we have been surrounded by images of STEM professions that make those jobs seem inhospitable to women and their values of collaboration, connection and empathy, said Beard. “It is a complicated debate, but Chapman’s research shows that one of the problems is the imagery we use, and that is a problem that we image professionals can fix.”

© Femi Corazon/Shestock
© Femi Corazon/Shestock

The full Shestock and Lee Chapman webinar can be viewed here:

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