Portrait of young hispanic woman
The Lean In Collection, co-curated by Getty Images and Lean In, offers stock photos of women that aren’t hypersexualized or stereotypical. Courtesy of: Getty Images Inc.

Hypersexualized and passive, shrill and overzealous — media and advertising portrayals of women often leave little room for reality or nuance. For countless women, such imagery is disempowering or anxiety producing — or simply annoying.

To challenge gender stereotypes and showcase women in an empowering light, Getty Images Inc., a Seattle-based stock photo company, launched a special image set, the Lean In Collection, in February 2014. Now, it is expanding the collection by making more than 1,000 images available on iStock by Getty Images, where licensing fees are lower. All collection photos are co-curated by Getty Images and Lean In, a nonprofit created by Sheryl Sandberg and named for her bestselling book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

“Let’s proclaim the end of [pictures of] women laughing alone with salad and walking up ladders in stiletto heels,” Sandberg wrote in a Facebook post on the expansion. “Here’s to closing the gender gap, one image at a time.”

The new photos are crowdsourced from iStock’s global contributor community of over 130,000 photographers, and more images will be added on iStock monthly. To grow this part of the collection, Getty has invited photographers to submit images that fit the mission. A portion of licensing proceeds will go to Lean In.

“The images that we ingest affect our perceptions and expectations of the world around us,” says Pamela Grossman, Director of Visual Trends at Getty. “If we only ingest pictures of women looking sexualized or passive, the more normalized those images become — and then the more accepting we are of that in our day-to-day lives.”

Major companies like Symantec are using the Lean In Collection. Courtesy of: Getty Images Inc.

More powerful images are good for business. Getty sales data points to a rise in demand for stock photos that resist cliches and showcase women as influential leaders with vitality and grace, according to Grossman. And the original Getty collection of photos has been “marvelously successful,” she says. Its size has grown to just under 6,500 images today from an initial 2,500 images at launch, and it has gained a global footprint, with the images now being licensed in 72 countries worldwide, including Russia, South Korea and Kuwait. Top companies are using the Lean In Collection, including Visa, Symantec, Vodafone and Scotiabank. Grossman says there are images for every budget available via its website. Pricing works the same way as the rest of Getty’s stock photos and is dependent on where the images will be used and for how long, the buyer’s industry and target audience, among other factors.

Getty’s photos depict real women doing real things — collaborating on a business project, giving a business presentation, working in a science lab and cooling down post-workout. The photography collection even includes a few pictures of men in caretaker roles with their families and children.

The company’s goals for the collection are twofold: to provide a real-world alternative to disempowering images of women and to raise awareness and spark a dialogue about the way women are portrayed in advertising, marketing and media as a whole. Ultimately, Getty and Lean In hope that people and companies will be inspired to become more thoughtful about the images they’re putting out into the world.

“This isn’t just a project, it’s a paradigm shifter,” Grossman says. 

Young female hockey player in locker room
Lean In Collection images showcase women and girls participating in gender-neutral activities. Courtesy of: Getty Images Inc.

According to Linda Descano, president at New York Women in Communications Foundation, the Lean In Collection is a part of a movement dubbed “femvertising,” a term coined by SheKnows Media for advertising that resists gender norms and empowers women and girls through uplifting messages and imagery. “The images we use can shape our perceptions positively or negatively — they can alienate or uplift,” Descano says.

She says that women care about how their gender is portrayed in ads for things they buy, and that they’re increasingly willing to put their money where their values are. “Women are saying no. They’re pushing back and raising questions,” Descano says. Given that women make 85% of buying decisions and are expected to represent two-thirds of the nation’s wealth in the next 15 years, marketers are taking note.

“We’re in a real golden age of feminist advertising, and it’s really thrilling to see,” Grossman says. Archetypal brands are deconstructing gender inequality by showcasing powerful women in news ways — just look at Under Armor with its “I Will What I Want” campaign, Nike with its “Better for It” campaign, Always’ “Like a Girl” campaign, Dove’s “Speak Beautiful” and Sport England’s “This Girl Can.”

Portrait of confident woman in workshop
Together, Getty and Lean In seek to empower women and girls by showcasing them as leaders in fields not typically considered feminine. Courtesy of: Getty Images Inc.

Descano notes that utilizing dynamic images of women is just the first step in changing the overall problem with gender stereotypes and hopes that companies using the collection will take practical steps toward proving they are committed to equal treatment and advancement for women in the workplace.

Demand for images that challenge gender stereotypes will continue to rise in the foreseeable future, both Grossman and Descano agree. “We don’t have any expectations for it to end,” Grossman says. “This is a project that we are committed to supporting and growing from now until we feel it’s no longer necessary.”