Search for "CEO" on Google Images, and you'll find only a handful of the first 100 results include female faces. Of those, one is a stock photo and another is … CEO Barbie.
A 2015 study by CNNMoney found that 14.2 percent of leadership positions in the S&P 500 are held by women, and according to nonprofit Catalyst, only 4 percent of top companies are currently led by female chief executives.
To help change Google's own male-dominated portrayal of CEOs, three aspiring agency professionals working their way through BBH's internship program, The Barn, want to change that fact with the help of some strategic SEO magic.
Copywriter Brandon Holliday tells AdFreak, "The inspiration behind the project started with the Three Black Teenagers controversy: a viral video where a Vine user Google Image searched 'Three Black Teenagers' to find mugshots and then Googled 'Three White Teenagers' to find happy stock photos."
Holliday, art director Shina Lee and strategist Josh Carnahan then began developing a way to force Google to pay attention to its skewed results—and provide some more visibility for top female executives in the process.
They came up with MoreWomenCEOs.com, the hashtag #ItsaJobNotaGender, accounts on various social media platforms and this video summary, which was produced with some assistance from the agency's in-house team:
Their plan: Get supporters sharing a four-part image that includes four widely admired female executives: Xerox chair and CEO Ursula Burns; Hewlett Packard president and CEO Meg Whitman; PepsiCo chair and CEO Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi; and General Motors chair/CEO Mary T. Barra.
Lee says, "[It was] a matter of finding the specific cause that we could help the most. Our solution is not a petition to get Google to change." The project's goal, she says, is "getting other people to share so we can organically get to the top."
"We're still very early in the process," Holliday tells AdFreak, noting that the group started by reaching out to advocacy groups and prominent female CMOs. He adds, "We're starting with smaller groups where we can have a big impact."
The 3 Percent Conference has already voiced its approval on Twitter, and now the group is aiming higher by ensuring that its project appears in the social mentions of such prominent figures as Tim Cook, Anderson Cooper and B. Bonin Bough.
.@morewomenceos love this! Solving for practical bias like in search and in stock photography is so important!
— The 3% Conference (@3PercentConf) July 25, 2016
So why are the CEO image search results so disappointingly homogeneous?
"A big part of it is the Google algorithm," Holliday says. "We've been working with a search engine guru who helped us craft this campaign, and we're doing everything we can to help it reach the top; the hidden algorithm affects results."
Still, the group clarifies that they do not believe Google is solely responsible for this trend. "We use Google and realize that it's an accurate mirror into how people perceive things," Lee says. "[We're just] trying to make sure there's a fair representation. We've contacted a lot of CEOs who have incredible careers, but no one ever shares about them."
Google may not always be the most receptive partner for such projects, but with enough outside interest this one could very well begin to address the matter—or at least to make more people aware of it.