How can businesses avoid reinforcing harmful stereotypes in their visual communications?

Jacqueline Bourke, Director of Creative Insights, EMEA at iStock on why brands must be responsible when choosing visuals, or risk reinforcing harmful stereotypes.

Jacqueline Bourke, iStock

Director of Creative Insights, EMEA


The easing of lockdown restrictions this month in the UK will have come as a relief to many. The pandemic has been hard on everybody. For some it has been emotionally and physically difficult; for others, especially businesses, it has been challenging financially or professionally. However, it is important to highlight that women in particular have been disproportionally affected.

A recent study by the Office for National Statistics found that women have felt more anxious, depressed and lonely than men during the pandemic. Women were more likely to be furloughed and have spent more time on unpaid childcare and housework.

Similarly, the latest report by the World Economic Forum on the global gender gap found that women were more likely to have lost their job as a result of the pandemic than men, and industries with a higher participation of women, such as the consumer sector, non-profits, media and comms have suffered more damage.

When examining the challenges facing women at this time, we have also discovered that gender stereotypes about women are being reinforced in the visual communications used by UK brands and businesses.

Brands must also be responsible when choosing visuals, or they risk reinforcing harmful stereotypes.

Jacqueline Bourke

Old, outdated stereotypes 

As a global source of visual content, iStock has access to customer download data which reveals the current trends in marketing imagery. Our data shows that in the last year, businesses have downloaded visuals of mothers home-schooling children over three times more than visuals of fathers doing home-schooling. Women are also shown juggling childcare and work 1.5 times more than men. In 2020, the top selling image in the UK relating to home-schooling depicts a man working on a laptop, next to a woman helping a child with their homework.

This imbalanced representation reinforces outdated and harmful gender stereotypes about women. Indeed, data gathered from iStock’s Visual GPS platform, which looks at the key factors affecting consumer decision making and how that impacts their visual choices, confirms the impact of harmful stereotypes, with 52% of UK women surveyed saying they have been affected by gender bias.

The fact that our most downloaded visual stories of these scenarios disproportionately show women as primary caregivers in domestic or childcare roles tells us that UK brands and businesses still have a long way to go in supporting gender equality in the workplace and at home. In fact, our Visual GPS data found that just 7% of men and women consider themselves well represented in communications from companies they do business with.

Brands can do better 

While these findings are disappointing, there is an opportunity for us all, collectively to address this and make a difference. At iStock, we provide guidance to brands to help them to ensure their visual content is as authentic and inclusive as possible and meets consumers’ expectations.

So, what should brands do differently in order to better represent their customers in a more inclusive way?

Firstly, brands should take proactive steps to counteract gender stereotypes. Choose visuals that represent the varied realities of all people. Brands need to consider whether the roles depicted in the imagery they choose are equally attributable to women and men, as well as asking themselves if they are authentically representing the many different people who take on the role of caregiver.

Secondly, brands should try to draw inspiration from real life. iStock’s data showed that, of all images downloaded by UK customers of women working from home, women over 50, with a disability or larger bodies were almost invisible; only 0.4% of downloaded images showed women with a disability, 7% of women over 50 and 5% showing women with larger bodies.

Brands clearly need to do more here to achieve full inclusivity and forge greater connections with their customers. When it comes to selecting visuals, they should ensure they are showing people authentically living their full lives and that they are representing the full spectrum of the population when it comes to depicting families. So, as well as considering ethnicities, ages, and abilities, brands must also be inclusive of LGBTQ families while also choosing visuals that represent a range of cultures and settings.

Using the right visuals is essential for businesses to ensure their message stands out to consumers in a powerful way. But brands must also be responsible when choosing visuals, or they risk reinforcing harmful stereotypes.

Taking the time to select visuals which are more representative of your customers can help you connect with your audience in a more meaningful way.

Guest Author

Jacqueline Bourke, iStock

Director of Creative Insights, EMEA ,


As Head of EMEA for Creative Insights at iStock, Jacqueline works with an international team of videographers, photographers, researchers, art directors and photo editors. The Creative Insights team regularly conduct in depth- analysis on consumer sentiment as it pertains to visuals, as well as reviewing worldwide communications and analyzing social, cultural and technological data. Combined with iStock’s invaluable access to customer buying patterns, the team’s work helps identify and shape visual trends that better connect customers to brands. Jacqueline has a unique insight into how images work in innovative communications, and the key factors in choosing powerful imagery for compelling campaigns. Her expertise covers a wide range of fields such as advertising, cinema, social networks and press.

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