This spring, I have been working on a very interesting project examining how men and women are represented with money in visual media. In this project, supported by Starling Bank, my colleague Shireen Kanji and I examined 600 images collected from the UK’s leading image banks: Getty, iStock and Shutterstock.
We embarked on this project because images are an important part of how we communicate. Brands use images to communicate their positioning and to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Media, too, use images to grab readers’ attention to their articles, or to communicate a message quickly – after all, as the popular saying goes, an image is worth a thousand words. And, we (consumers), too, use images to communicate with others and share our experiences.
But images aren’t just an addition to what we say. Images are also what we say, and, even, what we think and do. Images impact on our self-perceptions of belonging and capability. And, importantly, they shape how the individuals represented in those images are seen, and treated in real life.
Given that money is essential to modern life, visual representations of how men and women use or relate to money are, thus, critical to how we see the role of money in our lives, and how we handle it.
In this project, we analysed 600 images from the three most popular images banks in the UK, in terms of demographic, behavioural and symbolic representations of women vs men. We found distinctly gendered representations of men and women, including:
- Men are often shown holding stacks of notes, while women tend to be shown handling a small number of coins (often, pence).
- Men are shown using money (counting, showing off, spending…), while women are mostly depicted saving money (e.g., putting coins away in piggy banks, jars or small wallets).
- Women are more likely to be depicted as customers rather than providers of banking services.
- Men are often shown in agentic roles (e.g., using calculators, or signing documents), while women are likely to shown in passive roles (e.g., looking while the man uses the calculator, or signs the document)
- Men are depicted with gravitas – e.g., wearing suits, watches, and glasses. Many men are also shown with beards, and often using technology
- Women are dressed casually, and are staged against plants or holding hot drinks (which softens the image). Women tend to be young looking, and are often infantilised – for instance, they are shown gleefully inserting pence in small, pink piggy banks; or showing surprise or delight.
We also looked at the absences – i.e., what was not represented in those image banks. Key omissions include:
- Older people – Most of the images were of people in their 20s and 30s
- Visible disabilities – Not one of the top results depicted someone with a visible disability
- Diversity – There were no overweight or obese people depicted. Headscarves and tattoos are very rarely seen. There were no obvious signs of same-sex couples, though several images depict opposite sex couples, and a handful of images included children.
Based on our study, Starling Bank has created an image library that fights these stereotypes. They feature an hearing aid user, grey haired women, women with agency… you name it.
I am incredibly proud of this work. Please start using these images in your presentations and reports, and let others know about this image bank. Images matter! Together, let’s make a difference in how institutions and people think of the role of women (and men!) in finance.