sexism in stock photography, working from home edition

NBC News just published a self-identified “Hot Take” on why working from home is a bad idea. The piece, by public relations CEO Richard Laermer, is titled “I Let My Staff Work From Home, Then Realized It Wasn’t Working” and recounts a litany of problems that the author faced when he let his employees work from home one day per week. Laermer found that employees treated their Friday work-from-home day as paid time off, even leaving home to go on vacation without notifying their bosses. And the empty office was demotivating, apparently:

One of the many reasons we stopped the one-day-at-home was a startling comment made by our chief financial officer on an empty Friday: “Why do we have this beautiful office when nobody’s here to enjoy it?” The change was palpable, as our usually humming work space suddenly felt drained of the collaborative energy that had previously been a hallmark of it.

The actual research on working from home suggests that Laermer’s experience may not generalize. As economist (and tech CEO) Joe Golden describes, recent research suggests that all-remote work can increase productivity when done correctly. But I’m not writing this post to talk about the substance of Laermer’s argument. Instead, I want to talk about the sexism of the stock photography used to illustrate the piece. The top photo associated with the story is this one:

171026-stay-home-mom-work-remote-ac-508p_8d14f929329ab03653855df466f0bb5f.focal-860x430.jpg
The file name contains “stay-home-mom-work-remote” just in case you were confused.

Here’s the thing: the story never mentions parenting or childcare as an issue that Laermer confronted. Laermer names loneliness, shirking, and fewer mentorship opportunities – but not parenting. The only mention of childcare was a discussion of how IBM ended most of its work from home programs for 2,000 workers, but maintained certain flexible arrangements for childcare. And yet NBC chose to illustrate the story with an image of a woman distracted from work by a literal babe-in-arms. A second illustration later in the story shows a black man also clutching a child, reinforcing the childcare narrative, but this top image is the one that populates when the story is re-shared on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Here’s what happens when you share the post on Facebook:

Screen Shot 2017-10-27 at 10.37.06 AM.png

Whatever Laermer meant by writing the piece, and whether he was right or wrong, the stock photo and featured text tell a clear narrative: you can’t let mothers work from home because childcare will get in the way of their productivity.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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