How Come Stock Photography Sites Are So Sexist?

Posted on Jul 29, 2016 in photography

sexy-doctorOver the last two years, I have noticed an interesting trend in stock photography.  I didn’t realize notice it that much at first, but then over time it really hit – stock photography is pretty sexist!

It Started with an Ad Campaign for Data Scientist

I do a lot of writing and creative marketing work for employers and I was asked to generate a magazine ad campaign for data scientist.

We were trying to showcase our companies analytic capabilities so the idea was to show examples of typical data scientist at work.

I went to shutterstock and wanted to find smart looking people since data scientist are typically pretty brilliant.

When I typed in Smart Man, This is the typical picture that came back.


When I typed in “smart lady” this is the picture that came back. She might be smart, but she was missing pants.  This was the problem. I had a much harder time finding professional pictures of woman because so often they were too sexy to take seriously for business publications.


I Didn’t Think of It Again for Awhile, Until I Noticed it Again, and Again and Again.

We finished the prototype ads. I liked them but I really had to settle on using male subjects because I could not find professional images of woman data scientist.  That was unfortunate.

Over the last few years I had had other projects, blog post and marketing campaigns for work where I needed to find suitable stock photos that represented men and woman.

The funny thing is.  The same thing seemed to happen each time I searched.  I was having trouble finding stock photos that didn’t represent woman as either sexy, cute or flirtatious.

So, I Decided to Try a Test to See What Search Results on Shutterstock Returned


So this week, I decided to try a test.  I would search for the same terms in Shutterstock and compare when I wrote “lady” vs “man”.

Here was the first result.  First I searched for “Great Man” and then after I replaced my search with  “Great Woman”.  These were the results that came back for the first image for each search.   The results speak for themselves.

According to Shutterstock, Great Men Give Thumbs Up and Great Woman Keep Their Waste Size in Check


I was intrigued.  So I kept typing in different searches.  First searching for something with “Man” and later “Lady”.

This wasn’t a scientific experiment by any means but here are some of the things I found with each search.

“Lady FireFighter” Vs “Man FireFighter”

If you were stuck in a burning building who would you choose?  The lady firefighter whose pants fell down, or the male firefighter who looks like a hero in the making?



“Male Boss” vs “Female Boss”

Male Boss looks dependable. Female boss, not so much.  But she will Karate Chop you in her short skirt.


“Male Mathematician” vs “Female Mathematician”

Surely with this serious profession they would not be able to find to make woman look less smart and less serious and more cute than male mathematician.  They should all be math nerds right?

Wrong.  The male mathematician looks like uber Einstein while the female mathematician looks like she is fumbling around with dumb numbers.


“Male Chef” versus “Female Chef”

The Male Chef has that typical 5 Michelin Star chef hat on while the female chef doesn’t even look like she went to chef school.


“Male Secretary” vs “Female Secretary”

Now this one should clearly favor the female secretary.  Female secretaries is pretty commonly accepted in the business world.  Surely there had to be professional images.  Well not quite.

The male secretary actually looks pretty capable with the headphones on and ready to get down to business.  The female secretary on the other hand has that flirtatious “oh no you do you don’t bad boy look”


“Male CEO” vs “Female CEO”

By this point I was not expecting much when I typed in Male CEO and Female CEO.  I had been through this enough to know that Shutterstock would not disappoint.

And they didn’t.  I see the classic silver back male CEO looking CEO’ish and authoritarian while the female CEO has a completely different look.


“Male Waiter” vs “Female Waiter”

I decided to try a service profession which probably has an equal number of men and women today.  I would say even in that search the sexy factor skewed towards the female waiter.


“Male CoWorker vs “Female CoWorker”

Male co-worker returned predictable results.  He looks dependable and nice, a great guy to be around.  When I typed in “female co-worker” what did I get?  A couple of girls gossiping about Nancy and “what a bitch she is.”


“Male Neighbor” vs “Female Neighbor”

I haven’t quite figured out these results but they seem to suggest that male neighbors are hard working guys.  Female neighbors on the other hand are always up in your business, looking out of their blinds and coming by for “sugar” when they want to gossip.


“Ideal Man” vs “Ideal Woman”

I don’t even know what is going on with these two hunkster’s or why they personify the ideal man but I am not surprised that the ideal woman has no hair on her armpits and has perfectly smooth skin.


“Fantasy Man” vs “Fantasy Lady”

Fantasy Men are folklorical and from another time and will rescue a damsel in distress.  “Fantasy Woman”on the other hand reveal how predictable and boring guys fantasies are.


“Man Eating Cake” vs “Woman Eating Cake”

I was on a roll. I literally was proving my point with each search.  Each and every search was revealing to me just how warped the views between men and women are.

So I typed in man eating cake and then woman eating cake.  The man eating the cake looks stunned.  The female eating the cake appears to be in ecstasy.


“BoyFriend vs GirlFriend”

What happens when you type in “BoyFriend” vs “GirlFriend” into the search bar.  In both cases you see how distraught girlfriends usually are.  The guys are usually either walking away or trying to console the girl.


How Does this Happen and What is Going On?

I think my theory might be true. It is hard to find serious professional stock photos that don’t portray women as sexy, overly cute or flirtatious.

But this is not Shutterstocks fault entirely.  This is fundamentally a supply and demand issue.

First, Shutterstock is merely an aggregator of photographers photos for resale.  There is a lack of good professional photos for woman because there are not as many photographers uploading those pictures.

Secondly, Shutterstocks search algorithm returns results that show the most popular photos.  They just return what people most often will buy and download.

So the search results are just a reflection on what our society consumes to represent men and woman. In large part, our culture still gravitates towards the old fashioned portrayal of woman.  Because we do, photographers upload more of those pictures for sale and sites like Shutterstock rack up huge profits.

This search test I did just kind of proved it to me.

Some People are Tackling This Problem

After doing a little research on the subject, I found someone that is taking this problem on – Sheryl Sandberg.  You can read the article about what she is doing here – Tackling Sexism in Stock Photography.  Sheryl Sandberg is working with Getty Images to make more appropriate professional images of women in business.

Sheryl Sandberg Image from Woman 2.0


“Man” vs “Lady”

Well I decided to try one final search.  I typed the most generic search I could think of and the compared the very first image that returned.  I typed in Man and then I typed in Lady.

Here is what I got.


So I don’t know what you think of this?  Have you found this?  I am not sure if this is indicative of anything really but it is an interesting thing I have noticed over the years.