When it comes to working women we have an image problem

In her bestselling manual on women in the workplace, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg writes that “our culture needs to find a robust image of female success”.

Our dominant cultural image of the working mother today, she argues, is the ‘bad mother with a briefcase’ or (as blogger Jessica Valenti has called it, ‘the bad feminist mommy’ with a ‘sad white baby’).

A simple Google Image search for ‘working mother’ suggests that there is something in this:

pic 1The message delivered by images like these is that women ‘can’t have it all’. By venturing outside the home and into the workplace, the images say, a woman damages her family life. In the four images above, the phone (as a symbol of the world outside the home) removes the mother’s focus from her child. Both the mother and the child are depicted in distress.

When you search for images of a ‘stay at home mom’ instead, however, the collection of pictures that appears is strikingly different:

pic 2The ‘natural order’ is restored: the babies are no longer in distress, and the phone is no longer a symbol of a threatening outside world. The images scream ‘this is how it ought to be’.

Stay at Home Dad

Search for ‘working dad’, meanwhile, and you find more intriguing results. Most of the time, the working father is portrayed as getting ready to leave the house. Unlike in the cases of the women above, the men are not expected to juggle both children and a career – men’s interaction with their children is portrayed as brief and transitory. His focus is on the outside world:pic 3

Notice how the three daughters pictured help dress the father for his work outside the home, while the son learns to tie his own knot in anticipation of his future office job. Despite the father’s imminent departure, these children are happy: dad going to work is portrayed as a normal, natural thing (whereas mom working makes the babies cry).

Working Men

Our culture has a clear, well-defined trope or image of what a modern working man ought to look like. He is reliably portrayed with the paraphernalia of office work: the uniform suit, the newspaper, the phone and the coffee:

pic 4With his paper, coffee and phone, dad simply doesn’t have room to hold a baby. The situation in which the working man is burdened with a baby is portrayed as being unsustainable: something will fall, something has got to give.

pic 5These images depict the child as having been dumped on the man. The fathers portrayed look awkward and unsure as to how to handle the baby, they are seen to be shrugging in disbelief and wide-eyed in surprise: ‘how did this happen?’. They are in danger of dropping their standard-issue newspaper, phone or coffee due to the burden of holding this alien object.

Any doubt that our culture has an image problem when it comes to working women is quickly put to rest when you Google Image search terms like ‘young executive’:

pic 6Or ‘senior manager’:

pic 7Or, finally, CEO:

pic 8Every face is male and white.

Our society’s failure to come up with a ‘robust’ image of working women can be seen beyond Google’s algorithms.

Hollywood is where we see our culture reflected back to us in its most distilled form. Recent Hollywood productions do not score much better than search engine algorithms in providing a robust cultural image of working mothers.

Take I Don’t Know How She Does it as an example. Kate Reddy (Sarah Jessica Parker) tries to ‘have it all’ – the idyllic home life, the high powered career and the vibrant social life. Her husband, Richard (Greg Kinnear), is an out of work architect. She’s the breadwinner, he’s the stay at home dad – traditional gender roles are inverted.

Unsurprisingly, given Hollywood’s hardline social conservatism, this spells disaster. Kate comes across as a frazzled tourist in an outlandishly male world. Her life is a hectic nightmare. She soon concludes that the conservatives were right – in order to be happy it’s the woman who must stay at home:

Posted by: Lughan Odlum Deane