CNN | 1/18/2019 | Listen

For gender equality at work, seeing is believing

Updated 3:30 AM ET, Tue January 15, 2019

Editor's Note: Alieza Durana is a senior policy analyst for New America's Better Life Lab and author of Sexual Harassment: A Severe and Pervasive Problem. Haley Swenson is editor of New America's Better Life Lab and holds a PhD in Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies. The views expressed here are solely theirs. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN) - Through years of marches, media movements and classic advocacy, many have looked to women's representation and visibility as key to gender equality in the workplace. That's because to some extent, seeing is believing.

And it's why groups like Black Girls Code and Women Who Code emphasize the importance of visible role models who can show women and girls that web development and other STEM careers are ones they can have and excel at. This is also the logic behind movements agitating for more companies in the Fortune 500 to have women CEOs. Who we see as symbols of success and power affects who we think belongs in these positions.

In 2016, this led our own organization, a gender and work policy program called Better Life Lab, to launch Mission: Visible, a database of diverse experts in various fields, to help panel organizers and journalists include and amplify diverse voices. We've also supported journalistic projects meant to promote visibility -- showcasing photos of pregnant women on the job or dads in Sweden taking care of their kids in the middle of the day.

The logic behind initiatives like these is that seeing men actively involved in child care or visibly pregnant women engaged in an average work day helps to normalize the idea of and empower people to move into non-traditional work roles.

Despite efforts like these, there are still some cultural blind spots we need to overcome.

Recently, Pew Research Center released results of a study looking at whether men or women show up in pictures in online searches for particular jobs, and the results reveal troubling patterns. They found that gender inequality has found its way into online images of work and workers.

The study looked at image searches of 105 occupations. In more than half of occupation searches, women were underrepresented, relative to the number of women who actually do those jobs, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That means, for example, that although women make up 23% of announcers (think about the voices you hear while watching a football game or the voice that tells you what's up next on your favorite radio station), they were only 12% of people pictured as announcers.

Even with the progress women have made in an occupation like this, why is it that we still don't see them as announcers? As a culture, we're still catching up with our new reality.

But the researchers discovered another concerning and somewhat counterintuitive finding: "Image search results display more gender diversity than actually exists, on average." What the Pew researchers found is that on the one hand, in many occupations, women are less represented in images than they actually are in the world, but in a minority of occupations, 43%, women were overrepresented, relative to their actual share of the jobs, and the magnitude at which they were overrepresented outweighs the times they are underrepresented. In other words, there are serious gender inequalities these images might overshadow.

While it's important to see more diverse representation of the workforce in prominent places, especially in fields where women have made significant inroads, overstating how diverse or equal our workplaces currently are has detrimental effects. In our enthusiasm to show diverse people doing diverse work, we might unintentionally sell short the extent to which our workplaces remain deeply unequal.

The report shows that online images mask high rates of what experts call "occupational segregation," or the percentage of women versus men in a particular job category (researchers don't address non-binary individuals in the study). Though 2% of mechanics are women, for example, 24% of images returned in a search for mechanics are women. The Pew researchers used a high benchmark by looking at jobs where 80% of workers are men or women, finding 38% of workers are segregated at work. Other researchers have used 75% as a benchmark, and as of 2012, nearly half of US workers worked in gender-segregated environments.

In our study on sexual harassment across the occupational landscape, where we used 70% rather than 80% as the threshold for determining whether a job was dominated by one gender or the other, the numbers are even starker. Out of the top ten most common jobs in the US, only two have something close to a gender balance.

And it's important that we not overlook the gender segregation of jobs. It has serious consequences for women's economic security. Jobs predominantly held by women -- think housekeeping (84% women), nursing and home health care (86% women), child care (94% women), according to the US Census Bureau -- are often low-wage jobs with unpredictable hours and few or no benefits. As a general rule, the more women in a profession, the lower the wages.

It's not just wages affected by occupational segregation; jobs primarily occupied by one gender create vulnerabilities for sexual and other forms of harassment. In fields dominated by men, women, people of color, and LGBTQ persons are more likely to be perceived as threats and outsiders and often experience gender harassment, a type of harassment that intends the recipient to be made to feel unwelcome.

Fields dominated by women, such as nursing, hospitality and domestic work, often come with their own risks -- including isolation or work in intimate settings, which leaves women open to experiencing harassment from patients, clients, and managers who are more likely to be men.

Even jobs with a better balance of men and women contend with hierarchies where men occupy the top jobs and women stay at the bottom and middle, something we call vertical segregation. The Pew study shows that this kind of segregation also found its way into online images. For example, images of jobs associated with power and status, like that of a CEO, were far more likely to be men than women (only 10% of images were women), despite the fact that women are 28% of CEOs.

Inequality in online imagery is just one small step; to get to a more equal future we have to do a lot more than visualize. We hope the media, conference organizers, advertisers, and policymakers join us in seeking out images of workers that tell a new story about who should be doing what kinds of work, but do so with the stark reality of job inequality in mind.

Only with a clear picture of just how unequal our society is today will our society take proactive steps to change not just who does what jobs, but the way we compensate these jobs. The good news for visual learners is there are images that tell that story too.


© 2018 Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Listen to CNN (low-bandwidth usage)

Go to the full CNN experience