What Stock Photography Tells Us About the Evolution of Women in Culture

What Stock Photography Tells Us About the Evolution of Women in Culture

What can stock photography tell you about culture at large? With 450 million data points, it can tell you quite a bit.

By analyzing a year's worth of searches on Adobe Stock, Adobe was able to produce some insightful data on the types of images people are searching for, illuminating the evolution of both advertising trends and prevailing culture. Searches for women were up 39 percent last year, but the breakdown of that data is far more interesting:

  • Searches for one-dimensional women (i.e. "attractive woman") were down 43 percent.
  • On the other hand, searches for multidimensional women were up an incredible 500 percent, including a 633 percent increase for "sexy and strong" women and 645 percent for "sexy and symbolic," with further increases in searches for "authority" as associated with women.

Adobe asserts that this data reflects changes in how women are represented, particularly in advertising. Nonetheless, women in the industry point to the fact that only 11 percent of creative directors being female reflects an inherent sexism in advertising and why searches for "sexy" women remain pervasive despite an increasing multidimensionality to said searches. 

Said multidimensionality is believed to indicate a shift toward more nuanced and strengthened portrayals of women, however. This, coupled with a 43 percent increase for symbolic or iconic imagery of women seems to be indicative of a growing paradigm shift, one that Adobe believes indicates a reconceptualization of gender in advertising. 

Lead image by Jacob Lund, via Adobe Stock.

[via Adobe]

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12 Comments

Brian Hoover's picture

Alex - This looks like a follow up to a previous article you authored ( https://fstoppers.com/business/shutterstock-announces-creative-trends-20... ). The link to the actual data source from that article appears to be broken. Any chance on an updated one?

Ben Perrin's picture

"Nonetheless, women in the industry point to the fact that only 11 percent of creative directors being female reflects an inherent sexism in advertising and why searches for "sexy" women remain pervasive despite an increasing multidimensionality to said searches."

Equality of outcome is favouritism masquerading as equality. Why aren't you outraged that there's a ratio of 9.5 to 1 women in nursing jobs compared to men? Or is "equality" only good when women benefit? Another feminist agenda pushing article from you Alex, at this stage it's not surprising.

Alex Cooke's picture

Or it's a paraphrasing of the Adobe article which is itself a paraphrasing of a New York Times article: "This data seems to reflect a lot about how women are represented visually, especially in advertising. Last spring, the New York Times talked to women in the ad industry and discovered that the sexism of the “Mad Men” era isn’t too far in the rear view mirror. While women now make up 50 percent of the advertising industry, only 11 percent of creative directors are women.

And, according to the Times, women inside the industry think this has a big impact on the images in ads: “They recalled times when they were the only woman in meetings with both co-workers and clients. Some pointed to the ads themselves as examples of how the industry’s sexism manifested itself beyond office walls.” This might help explain why “sexy” remains a top search concept, even as searches for women grow and diversify."

Another attempt at pigeonholing, oversimplifying, and falsely ascribing my journalistic practice because some things I write disagree with your personal views, Ben, and at this stage, it's not surprising.

Ben Perrin's picture

You want to whine about oversimplification when you state that 50 percent of women make up the advertising industry yet when there isn't 50 percent at every single conceivable level it is because of sexism? Like I've told you previously, you are applying a simple equation to solve a complex problem. As an avid mathematician surely you can see that there are numerous reasons for statistical discrepancies. Which is my problem with your entire point of view. It's built on false assumptions and placing everyone into groups. It's identity politics and it's been debunked for a long time now.

Also what's wrong with searching for "sexy"? Is searching for sexy a sexist term now? Can women also search for sexy or does this new standard only apply to men.

"Another attempt at pigeonholing, oversimplifying, and falsely ascribing my journalistic practice because some things I write disagree with your personal views, Ben, and at this stage, it's not surprising."

Well I've previously provided numerous examples of feminist articles that you've written, so I'm hardly pigeonholing you. I'm taking time to respond to your points. Disagreeing with you is hardly falsely ascribing your journalistic practice. Yes, I disagree with your conclusions and I disagree with the conclusion that you are trying to get your readers to reach. I've seen so much of this stuff lately that I refuse to be silent anymore.

Alex Cooke's picture

As mentioned before, I didn't "state" it; it's a paraphrasing of the Adobe article which is itself a paraphrasing of a New York Times article that spoke directly to women in the industry. If you disagree with it so strongly, take it to the Times or better yet, those women working in the industry who have personal experience with those issues. And yes, as a professional mathematician, I do have a keen understanding of statistics and stand by the mathematical soundness of every statement I make, implied, paraphrased, or direct.

"Pigeonholing" in reference to the fact that I've written almost 500 articles for this site, and you seem to latch onto the maybe 8 or so that even address such issues, and furthermore, you seem to think I'm pushing an agenda instead of presenting quotes and verifiable information for you to make your own decision. You seem to mistake making definitive conclusions with presenting information, and I highly suspect it's because you simply don't like the fact that someone is presenting a perspective differing from your own.

Simply put: you don't know my personal point of view because I've never presented it on this site. Anything written here is something that has proven itself worthy of the industry's consideration (aka Adobe and NYT have written about it). If I wanted to present personal viewpoints devoid of backing statistics or the support of widely respected publications, I would start a blog.

Ben Perrin's picture

"What can stock photography tell you about culture at large? With 450 million data points, it can tell you quite a bit."

You keep starting with these statements and then hiding behind the defense that it isn't you that makes these arguments.

Alex, if you really believe that you are not presenting a point of view you are probably being naive. Can't you see that you are presenting your personal point of view when you publish these types of articles that are written with the same narrative? Unless of course they are all works of fiction!

""Pigeonholing" in reference to the fact that I've written almost 500 articles for this site, and you seem to latch onto the maybe 8 or so that even address such issues"

I'm not arguing against any articles other than the ones I disagree with. Why would I? Just because I disagree with a few of your articles doesn't mean I have a problem with all them. I'll comment on the good ones that really helped me and also comment on the ones I believe to be negative. And just fyi I do believe that you have written some good articles on fstoppers and I know that you have published a lot!

I've come to the point where I've seen too many of these types of articles go unchallenged. Usually it's because the person disables the comment section. But you haven't so good on you for that.

But Alex you didn't answer Ben's questions. The two questions that he asked you are fair and valid.

When Ben says "equality of outcome is favouritism masquerading as equality," that is also fair and valid. Giving someone a job based on sex is favoritism, and of course sexist.

Representation of sexes on any job and in any industry should be based on the interest of whoever wishes to do that job and work in said industry. It is not logical to expect equal representation of men and women in all jobs and industries since men and women do have different interests that exist as a result of biology.

You are a man of mathematics, so I would suggest viewing the situation as a a mathematical equation. Men and women have certain fixed values that simply can not be ignored.

I've seen first hand the unfortunate results of "equal representation" when young women are pressured and convinced to do jobs that they never had any real interest in. That's no better than pressuring and convincing them to not do jobs that they are interested in. The goal should be equal opportunities, not equal representation, and to then let people make their own decision on what job they wish to do. That is logical.

Alex Cooke's picture

They are fair and valid, and I would answer them if they hadn't been framed by language that indicated Ben was less interested in rational, openminded discussion than self-satisfaction. Nonetheless, to address all the points:

"Why aren't you outraged that there's a ratio of 9.5 to 1 women in nursing jobs compared to men?": Why are you assuming that? I write about photography, not nursing, and I don't believe I have the requisite expertise to comment on that. Nonetheless, I would venture a guess that it's not for the same reason as the disproportionality seen here, but that's just a guess, no more.

"Or is "equality" only good when women benefit?": Even though this question is derivative of the first and clearly meant to patronize me, I'll still answer it: refer to my first answer. Also, you can't equate two distinct industries with vastly different histories completely analogously. As Ben himself noted, it's an enormously complex question.

"'What can stock photography tell you about culture at large? With 450 million data points, it can tell you quite a bit.' You keep starting with these statements and then hiding behind the defense that it isn't you that makes these arguments.": That's because I can. That's the entire point and beauty of statistics: it reveals information and trends free of human bias. If a statement that boils down to something as vacuously true as "lots of data gives you lots of information" causes you such distress, there's probably not a level of discussion we can mutually meet on, seeing as I wholly subscribe to the power of statistics and mathematics.

"When Ben says 'equality of outcome is favouritism masquerading as equality,' that is also fair and valid. Giving someone a job based on sex is favoritism, and of course sexist... The goal should be equal opportunities, not equal representation, and to then let people make their own decision on what job they wish to do. That is logical.": Sure. But can you prove that there is historically equality of opportunity in advertising and the 9:1 proportion is a result of inherent differences in gender devoid of external factors? Again, at no point in this article did I make a statement saying that that proportion represents a causal relationship between sexism and the prevalence of women in the industry. The only thing I said was that the proportion exists and that women in the industry believe it is indicative of such a relationship. Nowhere did I say: "I, Alex Cooke, believe this one way or another."

""Why aren't you outraged that there's a ratio of 9.5 to 1 women in nursing jobs compared to men?": Why are you assuming that? I write about photography, not nursinG"

The question is valid if someone believes you have an unjustifiable feminist agenda based on previous articles you have posted. That agenda is certainly common in the articles on this site.

"Also, you can't equate two distinct industries with vastly different histories completely analogously. As Ben himself noted, it's an enormously complex question."

Complex, yes (though nowhere near as some people make it out to be) but the feminist view always resorts to the simplistic view, that they are being discriminated against. That's the underlying sentiment in your article.

"That's the entire point and beauty of statistics: it reveals information and trends free of human bias."

The value of statistics relies on the data points collected and who is doing the interpretation. It is very easy to use statistics to get the answers you want to push agendas, political, social, etc. Polls are a perfect example of that. Ask a question a certain way, limit the data, and shazam, you get the result you want. That's why I believe election polls should be banned.

"Sure. But can you prove that there is historically equality of opportunity in advertising and the 9:1 proportion is a result of inherent differences in gender devoid of external factors?"

I have four answers to that, and they are based on what I believe you are ultimately promoting, so-called positive discrimination.

1- Typically when one tries to support so-called positive discrimination they look to the past. Based on that, I will tell you what I tell them. This isn't the 50s-60s. Amusingly, I usually find myself telling that to young people, such as yourself.

2- Doesn't matter. The positive discrimination that you are at least indirectly supporting can never be logically justified any more so than the discrimination that it is supposed to be addressing.

3- It is not reasonable to expect proof of such a thing because there will always be someone, some employer, that will discriminate for any number of reasons. What is reasonable is to take the necessary steps to assure *as best as possible* that there is equal opportunity.

4- So-called positive discrimination leads to reactionary discrimination. Men will resent a woman being hired just because she's a woman. White people will resent colored people being hired because of the color of their skin.

"Again, at no point in this article did I make a statement saying that that proportion represents a causal relationship between sexism and the prevalence of women in the industry. The only thing I said was that the proportion exists and that women in the industry believe it is indicative of such a relationship."

But it's fair to conclude that you do support their position if you do not address the complexity that Ben brought up. I would have been satisfied if you simply said something along the lines of "maybe women are not as interested in this field as men are?"

Once again, the focus needs to be on equal opportunities, not equal representation. The later makes no sense and only makes things worse.

Ben Perrin's picture

"That's the entire point and beauty of statistics: it reveals information and trends free of human bias. ---- If a statement that boils down to something as vacuously true as "lots of data gives you lots of information" causes you such distress, there's probably not a level of discussion we can mutually meet on, seeing as I wholly subscribe to the power of statistics and mathematics."

Whilst the statement you've just made is true enough, not once did I ever question the statistics themselves. They could be completely wrong and I wouldn't know. The problem is the interpretation of the statistics, this has been where I've been concentrating my disagreement on. If you, for example, had come out with a statement saying "here is the raw data of stock photography search trends over the last year" then I would agree that you are proposing a neutral statement.

I think this is partly where we disagree. According to your statements you seem to be saying that you are just presenting raw data, you are being a neutral party in this discussion. I am saying that you are framing the data in a manner that draws a conclusion and asks the reader to draw a similar conclusion that the data is evidence of inequality. I am disagreeing with your assumptions and I don't buy your argument that you are not presenting your personal opinion by publishing this article.

I've previously listed a number of articles that you've published that establish a similar narrative. You haven't denied that. Hopefully you can at least see how I've come to the conclusion that you are pushing this narrative.

"But can you prove that there is historically equality of opportunity in advertising and the 9:1 proportion is a result of inherent differences in gender devoid of external factors?"

Even if historically an inequity of opportunity existed it can never justify current day inequality. Whilst it is abhorrent that such a thing could happen it is no excuse for equality of outcome. Peter explained it well. Just let people pursue the interests that they want to pursue. Men and women are different and will naturally seek different things in life. This is not a bad thing. Because they have different interests it becomes impossible to draw the same conclusion that these women have come to. Also I just want to make a note that just because men and women are different does not mean that they can't have similar interests.

Just a personal note Alex. My disagreement with this article and a few other's that you've written won't prevent me from leaving positive feedback on the next article that you publish that I think is good. I hope you understand that. :)

Anonymous's picture

Well, just so you don't have to wonder when I'll chime in ;-) I think your POV is demonstrated by your choice of articles to present. I like you a lot and like, well... some of your articles but you clearly have a liberal bias, not that there's anything wrong with that. I'm fairly conservative and make no apologies for that either.

It's very popular these days to point to data as conclusive but it's the conclusions, and not the data, that are in question. There are all kinds of ways to make data mean anything you like: ignore dissenting data (cough, cough, climate change, couch), present incomplete data (did I mention climate change? ;-)), etc. So...what to do? Present your case but admit you don't know for sure. It works for me. :-)
But then I could be wrong and usually am.

By way of disclosure, having read the article's title, I fully expected to make fun of or be aggravated by it. ;-)

Anonymous's picture

I try to avoid posting negative stuff, but trying to find trends about a subject this complex based on a single year of data seems ridiculous.