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Jan Lee headshot

Lean In's Sheryl Sandberg and Getty Take On the Sexist Image

Words by Jan Lee

Nothing tells a story better than a picture, and as advertisers have discovered, nothing sells a product more than an edgy photo--even if it is sexist.

Whether it’s a businesswoman in a tight miniskirt and heels, on her back in an alluring pose that seems to have nothing to do with the professional subject matter, or a nude model holding an automotive wrench over her ample frontage, suggestive imagery still sells.

And it sells the wrong message, says Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg. The founder of the women’s advocacy organization Lean In, Sandberg has made it her mission to rebrand the sexist, stereotypical way that she feels women are viewed both in and outside the workplace.

To do so, she’s gone straight to the source that counts for much of that visual publicity: the stock images that editors rely upon to illustrate their publications. Oftentimes the images we see on tabloids and web pages are governed by what’s available at a moment’s notice. Offering another more realistic source of graphics gives editors a better chance of presenting a fair and balanced visual perspective, and ultimately, a fairer playing field for the career woman.

Earlier this month, Getty Images and Lean In announced a new line of stock photos for editors to use. Getty Images, one of the industry’s largest purveyors of commercial, non-royalty images, is a strong supporter of pluralism--so Lean In’s concept fits right in with its own branding. The Lean In gallery will be presented alongside older images and is designed to broaden the choices for editors zeroing in on that 11th-hour press deadline.

Will it make a difference? Will the sexualized image of the saucy office worker in high heals and too-skimpy skirt fade away from the tabloid page? Will the advertising world ever stop using sex to sell products to us, and stereotypical images of women to carry the message?

Probably not, says a University of Georgia 2012 study that looked at ads for everything from banking services to vehicles and concluded that sexualized imagery actually increased in media between 1983 and 2003. Fifteen percent of the ads identified in 1983 used sex to sell products. After 1993 the number jumped to 20 percent, and by 2003, it had ballooned to 27 percent.

But does Lean In have a chance of revamping the way that businesswomen (as well as women in general) are viewed and portrayed in the media?

My guess for that answer is only if women genuinely want that change. Roughly 37 percent of editorial positions in newsrooms are held by women. While that number still reflects a minority percentage, almost half of those workers (16 percent) are editors or copy editors–the front-line troops who are accessing Getty Images and making those crucial editorial decisions.

And there’s one more, often overlooked factor: Sheryl Sandberg’s successful revamp of the female business image will likely depend not only on how accessible positive, inclusive images are to the editor, but how well the market will be willing to bear that changing perspective. Will consumers still click on alcohol or car ads that aren’t sexualized and provocative? Will newsstands still sell out that popular mag if it doesn’t rely on the old stereotypes that built their brand?

Like everything else in the advertising world, it will likely depend on the way the concept is pitched. And Lean In’s partnership with Getty Images seems like a good, welcomed place to start.

Image of Sheryl Sandberg: Financial Times

Image of business woman walking: Herlitz PBS

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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