How do you portray women on the Web?

Search for “woman” on virtually any stock photo site and you’ll get plenty of options.

Women in skimpy dresses. Women in bikinis. Half-naked women. Fully naked women posed so that it’s not technically pornography. Women working out in what basically amounts to underwear. Women in wedding dresses. Women indulging themselves in a massage, or chocolate-covered strawberries, or at the salon. You might even come across an image of a princess or two.

Sure, you might find an image of a woman working. But she undoubtedly looks stressed out, at her wits end, and ready to call it quits. To find a stock photo of a woman who actually looks in control at work is equivalent to finding a unicorn in the wild.


Stressed woman image via Shutterstock.

Take a look at stock themes pretty much anywhere online—even a lot designed by women—and you’ll find examples of these kinds of stock photos, if a woman even appears in the photos at all. Of course, there are exceptions, but they’re few and far between when you look at the overall numbers.


Why is this the norm?

Of course, part of the explanation for this may have to do with the abysmal numbers of women in the technology industries. While it’s hard to find concrete numbers, what is available is pretty disheartening.

Pinterest engineer Tracy Chou has created a public Google spreadsheet that details how many female engineers are employed by some leading tech companies. Out of companies with more than 10 employees, only 9 out of the 86 companies listed have more than 25% female engineers. That’s barely over 10%, and barely higher than the number who have no female engineers. Not a single one of those companies has over 35% female engineers.

The world of design isn’t much better. Instead of roundups of the best female web designers out there, we get roundups like this one that instead tell us who the 20 hottest female designers are. Their head shots are given much more prominence than their work. After all, a talented female designer isn’t nearly as valuable as a hot female designer. And the saddest part? That link is the first one that shows up when you search Google for “female web designers”. (FYI, the second link is also about “hot” female designers, though at least that one leaves out the head shots.)

According to some numbers I’ve seen, the ratio of male to female web designers is somewhere along the lines of 3:1. That’s a big disparity. And no one is quite sure why it exists.

The lack of women in the tech industry is obviously one part of the problem, though it’s just one aspect. What might be even more relevant when it comes to the reasoning behind the prevalence of these stock images is one of the oldest sales rules in the book…


Sex sells

We all know that sex sells. Or at least it’s supposed to. So using sexy, provocative imagery in our designs kind of makes sense.

But at the same time, you’re potentially alienating a lot of people. There are a ton of women out there who don’t like to see images that objectify them (no surprise there). There are a growing number of men who are also sick of being bombarded with these images. And honestly, a stock photo of a woman in a bikini should not be necessary when you’re trying to sell a website theme.

I don’t know about you, but all the offices I’ve ever worked in, I’ve never seen any of my colleagues dressed like this:


Business woman image via Shutterstock.

The same goes for these images of women who look entirely stressed out by technology and work life. There are plenty of women out there, myself included, who work with tech on a daily basis, without getting any more stressed out than our male colleagues. So why do we feel the need to show women as unable to cope with these daily demands?


Finally, an alternative

While it’s all well and good to complain about the portrayal of women in stock photography, there wasn’t much we could do about it. We were stuck with what was available. Not many projects have the kind of budget necessary for a photoshoot to get images that better represent women. It’s just not feasible.

Thankfully, there are people and organizations in the industry who recognize this. Getty Images is one such company. They’ve partnered with Lean In to create a collection of more than 2500 powerful images showing women, girls and the people who support them.


These images are fantastic. There are women from all walks of life, from all sorts of professions, doing all sorts of things. But the key here is that all of these women appear perfectly capable. They are not buckling under pressure; they are living their lives and doing their things, and are confident in that position.

Plenty of the images in this collection also include men, in the roles of partner, colleague, father, and more. It is by no means an anti-male collection, and in no way does it show women in a positive light at the expense of men.

There is a huge amount of diversity in the images, with women from around the world featured. There are women of all ages, too. It’s a really wonderful cross-section of what it means to be a woman, and gives designers and others using stock photos a wealth of options. It’s a welcome change to the industry, and hopefully other companies will follow suit.

  • JohnReindoer

    I usually check for my stock needs. Their photos don’t feel as artificial/generic as many of the other sites out there (iStockphoto comes to mind).

    I just did a search for the keyword “women” (which incidentally was linked via the frontpage) and most if not all photos there seemed to portray women in a decent and positive setting.

    In the end I’ve rarely come across stocksites that portray any situation realistically.

    • Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

      The featured image at the top of this page came from Stocksy, and I agree the photos there are less exaggerated than the examples we’ve used above. However, we still found it difficult to find an appropriate image.

      Even when portrayed in a semi-positive light, women are still depicted differently from men: they don’t work, they take coffee breaks; they’re not in a boardroom, they’re in a home office; they’re not advertising executives, they’re fashion designers; they don’t make money, they make things pretty — there is a consistent gender role applied.

      How many images of business men do you see where the model has his shoes kicked off and is checking his email whilst lounging on a sofa?

      • JohnReindoer

        I think this is stretching the point a bit. I’ve rarely had any issues with finding stock photos of females working in offices.

        Also, I feel like you’re adding a negative connotation to some things. A woman working in a home office is a woman that had the courage to start her own business and can be seen as strong and independent, where someone in an office can be regarded as a loanslave. Being a designer of any sort is a creative profession where you can make money as well as in any other profession?

        Honestly, I feel that finding a photo of a man in a business suit relaxing after a long day’s work won’t be that difficult.

      • Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

        “Honestly, I feel that finding a photo of a man in a business suit relaxing after a long day’s work won’t be that difficult.”

        The difference is a man will be relaxing *after* work, women are show relaxing *at* work. The subtext being that women don’t work as hard as men.

        You could I suppose, argue that means women are portrayed as coping more easily with the stresses of work, but I don’t think the wider portrayal of women supports that.

      • bgbs

        I guess once you start seeing the world through a feminist lens there is no cure.

        Benji I think you are seeing what you see because that’s what you choose to see.

      • Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

        I’d be delighted to be thought of as a feminist, but the term denotes action and I don’t actively campaign for women’s rights. At most I’d consider myself pro-feminist.

        I think it’s true that we often see what we expect to see. For example, any majority is rarely conscious of the racism that minorities report on a daily basis. Likewise, it’s normal for men to ignore sexism, because it’s rarely directed at us.

        But being ignorant of it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

  • Daniel Smith

    I agree with a lot of your points. However, I don’t really see how any of it is relevant. Did it ever occur to you that not all women want a technical or creative job? Your argument is like saying ‘There are only 10% of a certain ethnic background employed in this sector, therefore it’s discriminating against them’. Utter nonsense. In this day and age, there are very few restrictions on women, in terms of where they work and what they can do. Sure the pictures are degrading, but there is a market for it, just like any other. On top of that, I wonder whether the woman in the picture complained about being objectified. Some how I doubt it. In this day and age, we should be passed this battle of the sexes nonsense. It’s not about sex or race, but down to individuals.

  • Norie Belor

    I can agree with a few of the points made. It does seem like a lot of women are objectified in stock images but I can find just as many if not more women portrayed in a positive light where they are either in an office or casually in a group of friends. A lot of what I’m finding on mainstream stock image sites are pictures of beautiful women that you’d expect to see on a L’Oreal Hair Dye box or on a Maybelline ad but I am also seeing business women and women dressed casually. Quite frankly you can usually find what you’re looking for with using the right keywords. Using general things like woman or girl will get you totally random images.

    If you search just women you get business women, casual women, young and old women, and the heavily edited women as mentioned above. If you search men you get business men, casual men, and men with ripped abs and bulging biceps showing more skin than even the women.

    However if you search business woman, or business man, guess what you get. Business men and women, both looking composed or in whatever emotional state they were asked to perform when the stock photographer did the photo shoot.

    I feel like this is just a plug for getty images and this new campaign, which I don’t think (the campaign) is a bad thing, I believe the article is sensationalizing the portrayal of women in stock photgrpahy to up-sell Getty and Lean In.

  • Rachel

    Thanks for this. I’d like to add that older women are even more ignored in tech fields and stock photos (unless they’re being helped to use their computer by a handsome young fellow). I work with my 60-something mum who is our head of web development, and she gets angry when people use expressions like ‘so easy your grandma could do it’. I remember searching for images when I wanted to get her a geeky mothers’ day card and couldn’t find anything associating geeks and mothers. (I ended up making one).

    On the plus side, there are lots of women in technology events now (men welcome too), and like you say, men are getting fed up of the inequality too. Some of the biggest supporters of women in technology are men.

    • penina

      Rachel, thanks for adding this. It is actually one of my side quests to find photos of older women in business, design and tech. I have a couple of Pinterest boards that explore the idea. Think: Muriel Siebert, Susan Szenasy and Susan Weinschenk. Also check out (if you do dot-com, you’ll get 50 Cent :-)

  • butterbrei

    Wonderful post!

  • tif flowers

    I agree with you %100. I have to say that most stock images are ridiculous and exaggerated, but the images of women are really quite damaging. I had imagined that things would be different by now, but sadly these stock photo sites are a clear reflection that the way women are represented in media and advertising hasn’t really changed all that much.

  • Andrew Hersh

    I am upset by how difficult it is to find a quality picture of a dog driving a tractor.

    • Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

      That would be upsetting if dogs made up more than half of the human race.

      • Andrew Hersh

        I’m also kind of upset about how difficult it is to find a snow shovel in Florida.

      • Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

        You’re comparing women in tech/business, to snow shovels in Florida?

        I know you’re trying to crack a joke, but all you’re doing is demonstrating exactly the misogyny that this article was addressing.

      • Andrew Hersh

        Except what I’m demonstrating is that, if there were a higher demand for those pictures, there would be more of them.

        Is it honestly your belief that an entire industry should be chastised into spending money unnecessarily on providing images in quantity disproportionate to their demand, just so women designers will be able to feel better when they use one or two a year?

        If so, I hope you will be willing to pony up the cash the rest of us will have to pay for the pictures that actually get purchased in order to bankroll all of the pictures that don’t get purchased.

        Supply and demand isn’t a law because someone decided to make it so…

      • Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

        I honestly believe that women shouldn’t be degraded or objectified simply due to their gender.

        If that makes it difficult for hack photographers, then tough.

        “Supply and demand” is the same lazy excuse crack dealers use. It’s just a way to shirk responsibility for your actions.

  • EzequielBruni

    I have to agree with many of the points the author made. This is yet another reason I advise against using stock photos with people in them at all… if you can help it.

  • Rob

    I’m a freelance developer and in my circles I have business relationships with more women designers than men. Because of this I had the impression that this might be an area that has more women than men. However, the women I know in design are all self employed, running their own small design businesses. That is something that is not factored into the above information, which seems to be about the corporate world. Well I support your direction, but I don’t think the info you are presenting supports your arguments. I mean, it’s pretty subjective to talk about how hard it is to find appropriate pictures. I agree with another commentator: there is a wealth of stock images about women doing the same things as men in business. I would complain that most of them seem too young, but then, the same is true for many of the pictures of men in business. In stock images business seems to be populated by young tech savvy beautiful people of both sexes. Looking at the lean in collection, I am very surprised because those images look just like the images I have see in other collections all the time. There is nothing more or less balanced about it, except that I suppose there are no sexually oriented ones. This feels like it’s raising an artificial problem in order to promote a service.

    Having said all that, I am definitely in favor of a balanced and less sexualized portrayal of women!

    • Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

      What’s interesting is that most men think the problem is fabricated, most women feel quite the opposite. It is of course, very easy to tell someone else that it’s all in their head.

      The Getty Images partnership with Lean In did inspire this story, but it’s a wider issue. The fact that the partnership exists should demonstrate its necessity.

  • Sebastian

    I’m aware of the problem of sexism in general but your following statement just isn’t true:

    “Search for “woman” on virtually any stock photo site and you’ll get plenty of options.

    Women in skimpy dresses. Women in bikinis. Half-naked women. Fully naked women posed so that it’s not technically pornography. Women working out in what basically amounts to underwear. Women in wedding dresses. Women indulging themselves in a massage, or chocolate-covered strawberries, or at the salon. You might even come across an image of a princess or two.

    Sure, you might find an image of a woman working. But she undoubtedly looks stressed out, at her wits end, and ready to call it quits. To find a stock photo of a woman who actually looks in control at work is equivalent to finding a unicorn in the wild.”

    Just do it yourself, type in woman on Shutterstock

    I can see at least 7 images which are work related and none of them show the woman in a stressed out position. The contrary actually. Also the rest of the images is a well mixed collection of photos and none of them is even over sexualised or objectifies women.

    If you search “Man” on shutterstock you’ll find more nudity that for the term “women” on page 1.

    This is bad because it shows that this point is fabricated and not true. It harms the discussion. Sexism should be critisized whenever necessary but not for the sake of creating link bait. It’s sad how this topic gets exploited nowadays by bloggers.

    If there’s a problem, talk about. If not, pick a different topic.

    • Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

      The vast majority of those images are of young, white, flirtatious women. On the first page there are less than half a dozen images suitable for business, but I count 18 women naked or perceptably so.

      On the ‘man’ link, there are 27 images clearly in a business context, and 2 in any state of undress.

      Don’t get me wrong, Shutterstock is in my experience, far from the worst offender, but it’s still pretty clear cut.

      • bgbs

        what drives these results is algorithm. Meaning the first page results are based on clicks, popularity, sales…etc. The results also do not mean that most photos on stock sites are of white, young, flirtatious women. That’s the wrong assumption to make.

      • Sebastian

        Sorry, but I was referring especially to this part

        “Sure, you might find an image of a woman working. But she undoubtedly looks stressed out, at her wits end, and ready to call it quits. To find a stock photo of a woman who actually looks in control at work is equivalent to finding a unicorn in the wild.”

        This sentence absolutely excludes any possibility to find any image of working women who are in control or happy. This is not true at all. Quite the opposite.

        And the fact that there are a lot of beauty/cosmetics related images is obvious. It is a website for stock images which are used on corporate and business websites. Cosmetics, wellness and beauty are huge markets and most of those images are used to advertise products to women, not men.

        Please don’t confuse and ignore the facts here. These images are totally adequate. Please recognize that there are differences in hobbies, interests and profession of the average man or women. It’s just the way it is. Or would you complain about how few images of female bodybuilders, construction workers or other male dominated domains you’ll find.

        The fact that you are discriminating against those “white, flirtatious women” is kind of bothering since almost all of those images are somewhat tasteful and not sexualized. They just serve to be used for certain industries and topics which women themselves are most interested in, like beauty or wellness.

      • Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

        I would think it’s obvious Cameron used dramatic license, because there’s literally no such thing as a unicorn.

        It’s simply not acceptable to treat these kind of images as ‘totally adequate’. And the suggestion that we’re actually ‘discriminating against those “white, flirtatious women”‘ is an attitude that quite rightly died out in the 1970s in most progressive circles.

        The notion that women want to be treated differently to men is demonstrably nonsensical.

      • Cameron

        Yes, I was using a bit of dramatic license here. But there’s no denying that there are vast differences in the way women are portrayed compared to men in stock photography. The Getty Images/Lean In partnership is a huge improvement in that area, particularly because of the wide range of ways women are shown in those images. They portray women in a much more true-to-life manner.

  • Sebastian

    I wrote acomment, where is it? It didn’t contain any insults or other inappropriate remarks.

    • Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

      It’s above. We moderate comments to keep the spam away.

  • bgbs

    “But the representation in stock photos tells a different story.
    Men are overrepresented in these technical and creative photos, while
    women are only depicted in stereotypical or degrading fashions.”

    Did it ever occur to you that perhaps women do want to be represented more sexy than more professional on the job? There is recent survey where women were asked if they’d rather be more attractive or more smart. 70% or some such number voted they’d rather be more attractive than smart. This is women telling us how they want to be portrayed. So the problem is not with stock photos, but rather how women see themselves. Which is why I have strong problem with such articles, because they never tackle the root of the problem.

    “there is no (or very, very little) counter-balance showing women in
    professional, technical, and creative jobs the same way that men are”
    I’m a little confused, why do you want women to be portrayed the same as men? Let me answer this question with a question. How does a husband wants to portray his wife, and how does a wife wants to portray her husband? Or how does a girlfriend wants to portray her boyfriend, and a boyfriend wants to portray his girlfriend? The answer to this question is never the same, because it’s all about women’s and men’s worldview.

  • Cameron

    Your comment makes too many wrong assumptions. First of all, I’m probably the most staunch capitalist you’re going to find. But we have a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario here. When product “A” is the only one readily available (in this case, overly-sexualized images of women), then of course demand for product “A” is high. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a demand for product “B” (women portrayed in a more realistic manner). Obviously someone at Getty thinks there’s a demand for B, since they’ve launched the partnership with Lean In.

    And I don’t think women are victims of society at all, nor are they all innocent. I simply raised the point that in general, women and men are portrayed very differently in stock photography. And the idea that “only men are very passionate” about things like tech and construction (both of which I love, btw, and yes, I’ve actually swung a hammer in my life, many times) is totally fallacious, as is the idea that there aren’t many men working in the apparel industry (I could name dozens of male fashion designers, and see plenty of men working in apparel at the retail level, too).

  • Benjie — WebdesignerDepot
    • Andrew Hersh

      One man in one set of pictures particularly staged to take advantage of the fact that there is a distinct lack of quality pictures of a man homeschooling his children proves me wrong?

      How about, it proves the fact that there are barely any of those pictures because there is no demand for them?

      • Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

        The fact is that men are under-represented in domestic roles, but they’re not mis-represented; you won’t find an image of a man hoovering in his underwear.

  • Nathan

    First of All, Wonderful Post – I can’t say it’s an eye opener coz in reality this is really what you get – these are hard facts and it’s quite sad, coming from a conservative society myself, I’ve really felt the wrath of this perspective of women on a first hand basis and its downright ugly! but it’s definitely mounded me stronger in thoughts-actions and will – though there is no easy solution to overcome this, for all I know there might not even be a solutions that can be freely accepted without debate, there would be no room in this world for feminism if that was the case – All we women folk can do right now it to take a stand of our own image and portrayal and stand out, this way maybe you still can’t change the images portrayed on search engines and social media but at the least you can make an impact on people around you!

  • Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

    I guess it depends on whether you place money before all things.

    However, to use your argument of supply and demand, there are thousands of companies worldwide that are rejecting overt capitalism in favour of what is loosely termed ‘ethical business’. They’re doing so, because in the long term, it’s better for them as well as their consumers.

    I agree that a pretty girl in a short skirt is a great way to sell to teenage boys. I’ve not seen any real evidence that it works with adults, and it certainly doesn’t work with women.

    • Andrew Hersh

      I am having trouble believing you when you pretend to not think pretty girls in short skirts sell to both grown men AND grown women.

      They sell to grown men who want to sleep with her, and grown women who want to look like her.

      • Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

        I disagree. Pictures of pretty girls in short skirts don’t sell a product to me, and they certainly don’t sell to women.

        Why do you think GoDaddy changed its advertising strategy? Because girls in bikinis only sell to boys in their bedrooms.

      • Andrew Hersh

        Then you aren’t only disagreeing with me. You are disagreeing with basically every single advertiser who has ever existed.

      • Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

        You need to look at more advertising. The vast majority of companies that don’t use stock, don’t produce this kind of image for their promotional material.

  • Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

    No, of course not. It’s a screen shot of Getty’s ‘Lean In’ project webpage—which covers more than just business.

    And of course stock photography sites are there to make money, no one is suggesting they should focus on art (which also objectifies women for much of its history).

    The point is, that there is a demand for depictions of women that treat them as equal members of society, and that demand is infrequently fulfilled by an industry dominated by men.

    If you’re going to argue that if women warranted equal treatment they’d already have it, then we’re on a very slippery slope.

  • Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

    I’m not a chef, it doesn’t mean I don’t want to see chefs produce healthy food for me to consume.

    • Andrew Hersh

      If there were no demand for healthy food, it would not get produced; and if you wanted some for yourself, you would need to make it. You would not have the right to force an entire industry to produce something only for you.

      • Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

        There’s a difference between supporting an initiative and enforcing it.

  • Sneha Kapoor

    Amazing!! Women are definitely to reform design industry.