Images of Women on Bikes? We Need to Lean In, Too

The recent announcement that, the not-for-profit organization founded by Facebook executive and author Sheryl Sandberg, has partnered with Getty Images in a collection that aims to change how women are depicted in stock photography is thought- provoking on many fronts – including in connection with women’s cycling.

It’s a topic that I included in the panel that I moderated at the National Women’s Bicycling Forum in Washington D.C. last week. The presentation, entitled Women and Cycling: What are we Really Selling? focused on lifestyle marketing to engage more women in riding bicycles. Nationally, women accounted for just 24 percent of all U.S. bike trips.

What’s interesting about Ms. Sandberg’s latest move is the emphasis on the power of images in marketing. We need look no further than smartphone cameras, Pinterest, Instagram and Tumblr to perceive how the currency of communication has changed.

“Images have become the universal language,” says Pam Grossman, Getty’s director of visual trends. She notes in The Washington Post that the Lean In collection is partly inspired by marketplace demand for authentic images that show women “who look like they are fully involved in and responsible for the direction of their own lives.”

At the Forum, connecting this idea with promoting women’s bicycling resonated with the audience. Specifically, a suggestion to create a centralized photo collection of high-quality images of women bicycling drew applause. It’s an idea that should be more feasible than ever to execute, given the volume of excellent user-generated photos by cycling enthusiasts and the good will that surrounds an ever more dynamic movement to get more women on bikes.

‘You Can’t Be What You Can’t See’

Some background on the Getty alliance: Ms. Sandberg, whose book Lean In, has re-invigorated the national conversation about women in the workplace, joined with the mega stock photography house Getty Images, to offer a collection of more than 2,500 images, some new and others existing, aimed at combating stereotypes by depicting women and families in more empowering ways. Art directors, ad agencies, businesses and media buy stock photography to use in advertising, marketing campaigns, publishing, website content and more. Getty’s collection of more than 150 million images is accessed by 2.4 million users.

Ms. Sandberg told The New York Times: “When we see images of women and girls and men, they often fall into stereotypes that we’re trying to overcome, and you can’t be what you can’t see.” Think: Out with women in gray business suites climbing ladders and in with women in a conference rooms wearing contemporary clothing, wielding tablet computers and leading the conversation. Women’s cycling advocates will be heartened to see female bicycle commuters and women teaching children to ride bicycles among the choices in the new collection.

The Power of Aspiration

At this moment of encouraging progress in the women’s cycling movement — prompted by more infrastructure that improves safety, growing interest in public bike share systems, greater commitment by cities to sustainability and demographic and psychographic shifts that are changing the face of cycling — the need for new thinking about marketing, including use of visuals, is important.

But the fact is that existing images are often carelessly composed or outdated, or objectify women, or depict them in situations that reinforce stereotypes about discomfort or safety of cycling. So why not create a Lean In-like collection of authentic, inspiring and diverse images that help to convey the benefits of cycling — fun, community, exercise, escape, convenience and more. Women taking their children to school, shopping locally, commuting to work, sharing a ride with friends in a city park, on a trail or on the open road.

The Lean In Collection images are sold for profit, with a portion of proceeds being donated to grants that support creation of additional images and also the mission of However, many not-for-profits make high-quality images available as free downloads from their websites for (non-commercial) use in cause-related marketing and publicity.

The Attraction of Compelling Images

The fact that people project themselves into compelling images is hardly new – it’s Marketing 101. And, perhaps it’s true, as some respondents to the unveiling of the Lean In collection noted, that none of this would have been news were it not for Ms. Sandberg’s considerable influence. However, few could argue that the application of proven marketing principles in the world of two wheels could come up to speed.

And it is happening. As the definition of what cycling looks like in this country changes, advertising and marketing focused primarily on features of bicycles – that is, of the machine itself — is beginning to evolve toward messages about what bicycling can add to one’s life.

At the same time, fashion and lifestyle media are enamored of the bicycle, readily portraying the care-free qualities of life on two wheels everywhere from fashion magazines to television commercials.

How People Organize Their Identities

Predictably, there’s been blow-back in the comments sections of news outlets that carried the Getty Images story. Blame the misogynistic world of advertising! Wrong target: Stock photos by definition are clichés! Why are we worrying about photos when we should be focusing on equality and social justice for women? Some laud the availability of the Lean In collection, but wonder whether it will actually be used.

But I side with a reader of The New York Times, who observed: “If you take issue with the glossiness of this project, fine, but I think you underestimate how people organize their identities in relation to images in media. If those images already exist, and this just serves to make art directors and consumers aware of the demand for them, all the better.”

The ongoing question for all who hold a stake in the evolving future of women’s cycling: When it comes to images, how do we help women organize their identities to envision themselves on bicycles?

Learn more about the National Women Bike program by clicking here.

Photo: Dmitry Gudkov

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1 Comment

  • Wonderful conversation! When you look at The LeanIn collection there are many images of women & motorcycles. Images of women biking will be of great value to their collection as well as our movement. Thanks VeloJoy!

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