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Changing Depictions, Changing Perceptions


Feb 21 2014
Bridging the gap between female stereotypes and real women starts in our heads, not stock photography.

Last week, Getty Images unveiled the Lean In Collection, a "library of images devoted to the powerful depiction of women, girls and the people who support them."

The collection, collaboratively curated by Getty and Sheryl Sandberg's LeanIn.Org, includes more than 2,500 images depicting contemporary female leadership. The new photos add a huge dose of color and reality to the dull realm of stock photography, where women weirdly laugh while eating a salad and struggle to drink water.

As a researcher of female Christian leaders and one who has argued for greater female leadership representation at our conferences and in our churches and ministries, I applaud the effort of Getty and LeanIn.Org to challenge the female stereotypes often illustrated in stock photos, but I still believe it takes more than appealing photos for women and girls to embrace the potential career fields and positions open to them.

It's easy to see the positives: The new photos give a face to the invisible millions who don't fit within the narrow, stereotypical realm of stock photography. "The stock imagery around women is embarrassing," said Jessica Bennett, contributing editor at LeanIn.org, "You can't be what you can't see, so if women and girls are not seeing images of powerful women and girls who are leaders, then they may not aspire to become that."

The LeanIn Collection notably includes minorities and the elderly—demographics that are often overlooked in stock photography—and portray female professionals in medicine, veterinary medicine, military, art, business, and culinary arts.

But are photographs enough to change deep-seated perceptions and stereotypes we have about women? Are they enough to change the "image" we have in our heads about women?

In my research on female Christian leaders, I basically took a snapshot of the image that people have in their heads about female Christian leaders and Christian women in general. When I compared what people thought of female leaders to what they thought of women in general, what do you think I discovered?

They have nothing in common.

People generally believe:

1. Women are more communal than female leaders.

2. Women are less task-oriented than female leaders.

3. Women are less relational than female leaders.

4. Women have less transformational leadership qualities than female leaders.

5. Women are less agentic (getting things done, confident, assertive, etc.) than female leaders.

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Changing Depictions, Changing Perceptions