It’s Women’s Equality Day — But Where are the Women?

Vivian Chen
Aug 26, 2019 · 5 min read

August 26th is a special day for me. Not only is this day my wedding anniversary, but more importantly, it is also Women’s Equality Day, a commemoration of the day American women won the right to vote.

This year is in fact the 99th anniversary since the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment. As we head into year 100, I couldn’t help but wonder, where are the women?

In 2019, women are still missing from the boardroom, the ballot box, the media, and even in search algorithms. According to Getty Images, 70% of women don’t feel represented, with 71% of women yearning to see more diverse portrayals including age, race, abilities, and size.

Seeing is Believing

“Visual representation is both a reflection of societal norms, but also a reinforcement of what is normalized in society. How we see people who look like us interacting in the world informs what we view as possible in our personal interactions with the world” (Seeing is Believing, 2019).

In many ways, this year has been a win for women on many fronts. We have the most diverse Congress with 24% women, a record of 33 female CEOs leading Fortune 500 companies, and women occupying nearly 27% of Fortune 500 board seats.

However, women are still earning 79 cents to every $1 earned by a man. According to the World Economic Forum, it will take approximately 208 years for women in the US to reach gender parity.

An Everyday Reality

The issue of equality and representation is near and dear to my heart. As the founder of Rise, a flexible work platform for leading women, my daily interactions are mostly with other women: innovators, leaders, community advocates, dreamers, doers, changemakers.

Earlier this year, I set out to revamp my company’s website and started by Googling terms that described the women that I interact with: entrepreneurs, startup founders, CEOs, business owners. What returned were pages of stodgy, traditional stock images of mostly white men in suits and hoodies. There weren’t many photos of people who looked like me or the women that surround me: dynamic, powerful, modern women who called our own shots. Even the few photos of women that did surface, they wore dark suits, with their arms crossed over their chests.

“What we see visually, in a Google image search and beyond, shapes the possibilities and the limitations of our existence” (Seeing is Believing, 2019).

Google Image Search for CEO

With the rise of the “startup dude” uniform, we see self-assured men donning hoodies and sneakers, an acceptable alternative to the “standard” professional attire of dress shirts and pants. This flexibility for men signifies that the person can be taken seriously, regardless of dress or environment. But conversely, what if we put women into that same uniform? Would we pass off as confident disruptors or would we be labeled frumpy and unprofessional? Isn’t it time we move beyond the menswear-inspired suit for a woman to be taken seriously?

“The biggest impediments to accurate representation continue to be conscious and unconscious bias, stereotyping, and a prevailing inclination toward images featuring men in primary roles and women in secondary roles” (Seeing is Believing, 2019).

This was again reflected in my Google search. There were certainly a few images of women that did pop up. Out of curiosity, I clicked into the actual images, my heart sank as I read articles titled “3 Essential Tricks to Become More Confident as a Leader” and “Do I need to have a Strong Personality to be a Leader?” Clearly, women are only featured in the context of deficiencies or shortcomings.

Google Image Search result for ”leader” featuring women, with accompanying article on how to gain confidence as a leader.
Google Image Search result for ”leader” featuring women, with accompanying article on “Do I need to have a strong personality to be a leader?”

Picture of a Leader

The quality of women-centric imagery, subtle and ubiquitous, reaches beyond the workplace — affecting the seriousness of women, and their work — in any field or industry.

In a 2018 New York Times article “Picture of a Leader”, when people were asked to: “Draw an effective leader,” the results are almost always the same, both men and women almost always draw men.

Rise Photo Shoot: Modern Women at Work

“When people are consistently exposed to leaders who fit one profile, they will be more likely to notice leaders who fit that same profile in the future. That’s how the self-reinforcing ‘confirmation bias’ cycle works” noted Nilanjana Dasgupta, a professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences at University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

What’s Next

Earlier this year, we hosted our own photoshoot in New York City to increase the quality and quantity of images depicting modern women at work. The shoot featured a diverse set of women, including technology entrepreneurs, a community activator, a STEM educator, a fashion magazine editor, and more.

We wanted to challenge the male-dominated dark suit and hoodies and show that women can be successful regardless of what we wear. This campaign was first and foremost a celebration of women. It’s important that women see other women starting businesses, leading an industry, forging a new path, creating opportunities for themselves.

Rise Photo Shoot: Modern Women at Work
Rise Photo Shoot: Modern Women at Work
Rise Photo Shoot: Modern Women at Work

Further Reading: The Power in Visual Representation

In addition, Rise in collaboration with The Rise Journey, a women-founded organization focused on diversifying work cultures, published a white paper called Seeing is Believing: The Power in Visual Representation to examine the connection between fair and balanced representation and equality.

We hope the photoshoot, along with the white paper will encourage other companies and organizations to launch their own campaigns to increase the visibility of women in every field.

Next year 2020, marks the 100th year since the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, what can we do in the final year before year 100 to make women seen and supported?

Vivian Chen

Written by

Thinker, Tinkerer, Troublemaker | Founder & CEO

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