How Do You Portray Women on the Web?

Cameron Chapman By Cameron Chapman  |  Mar. 04, 2014

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.