Deodonne Bhattarai, Resident Blogger (’12, Northeastern University School of Law)
Last month Getty Images, in collaboration with Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn.org nonprofit foundation, launched over 2,500 new stock images aimed at depicting “female leadership in contemporary work and life”. As a collection, the images are a beautifully composed collage of picture perfect women, girls, families, and friendship. However, taken individually, some of the images may perpetuate a problematic oversimplification of what it takes for women to thrive in the corporate world.
A number of the images play with the work/life balance motif, showing thin, stylish women in contemporary work and home office settings. In an interview with NPR, Getty’s Pamela Grossman discussed how these images were intended to present an updated and more dynamic vision of motherhood.
“The older model would be that … the mother looked incredibly harried, and she would be juggling a dinner plate in one hand and a baby in the other. Sometimes even more arms would be Photoshopped onto her to show just how indeed she was juggling it all.” Grossman compared this outdated model of a multitasking mom with that depicted in the LeanIn Collection, “They really feel like they have contemporary style, and they’re engaged and energetic.”
Although the intent behind the collection is admirable, it is hard not to question whether this contemporary view of working mothers may be setting an unobtainable bar for those of us contemplating or trying to balance motherhood with a career. In a country where income inequality continues to grow and women face a wage gap of $.77 to every dollar earned by a man, where most lack access to paid maternity leave, where the glass ceiling and maternal wall are still very much intact for women pursuing corporate leadership, and where female attorneys represent less than one-third of lawyers at law firms (a number that has actually been dropping for the past four years), the new Collection presents a picture that is hard to reconcile with the reality working mothers face.
Many of the images of working mothers show them sitting at their immaculate desks, working on their laptops while young children balance on their knee or sit serenely nearby. How do these women manage to keep their children from grabbing at the laptops, pouring coffee over the keyboards or pulling on their dangly earrings and perfectly coiffed hair? Where are these women supposed to be? Certainly not at work-I have no data on this but I bet there are more dog friendly offices in the U.S. than child friendly. So are these mothers supposed to be representing the women who are fortunate enough to have a flexible working schedule that allows them to work from home? If so, they must be wealthy enough to afford housekeeping because their offices are immaculate with few or no toys in sight for their perfectly behaved children.
Although the collection does include women of various ethnic backgrounds and ages, it fails to move past the model thin and designer dressed. The idea of a more “contemporary” working mother is nice, but at the end of the day these are stock photos used to depict artificial scenarios in order to sell a product or service, or to communicate a point of view or sentiment..
To claim that the Collection serves a loftier dual purpose is an overreach and I question whether these images of the “contemporary” working mother are actually an improvement upon the traditional multi-armed multitasking mother. What woman can possibly live up to the unrealistic standards these images depict while trying to succeed in a world where working women continue to be discriminated against because they are mothers. The Collection’s embrace of the unrealistic while touting it as “empowering,” left me feeling just the opposite – how will I ever be able to obtain such a lifestyle while balancing my legal career with the needs of my family?