This week, I dedicated approximately three hours to an investigation that seemed, at varying times, important, obscure, symbolic and deeply, deeply petty. The task at hand: determining whether two women who were photographed at a tech summit in Italy were, in fact, at this tech summit in Italy.
The photo in question was taken at the villa of fashion designer Brunello Cucinelli, who had invited a bunch of tech executives to “a symposium on the soul and the economy.” The co-founders of LinkedIn and Dropbox were there, as was the Twitter CFO and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos who, I am ethically obligated to remind you, also owns The Washington Post. Cucinelli provided photos to GQ magazine, which included them in a story about the event — and that is when things got weird.
Journalist Ryan Mac noticed something about one of the pictures. It featured 15 men and two women, and something was off about the women. One of them appeared to be lit differently than everyone else in the photo. The other had a leg that did not align with the rest of her body. Were these women actually in the photo, or was it possible — given the well-documented dearth of women in tech, given an increased awareness of gender parity and the concern of so many leaders in at least getting the appearances right — that they’d been added via Photoshop? Did they even attend the conference? Did they even exist?
They do exist. Internet sleuths revealed them to be Lynn Jurich, the CEO of solar company Sunrun, and Ruzwana Bashir, the CEO of travel-planning site Peek.com. I emailed both women’s publicists to see whether the CEOs had, in fact, posed for the photograph.
Jurich’s press office responded promptly: “Ms. Jurich was delighted to participate in Mr. Cucinelli’s symposium on the soul and economy. As a leader [in the] energy sector, Ms. Jurich discussed the urgent need to decarbonize and the role of technology to accelerate decarbonization.”
Which was a lovely sentiment, but I explained that it didn’t answer the question: Fine, Jurich had been at the summit. But had she been in the photo?
The publicist suggested I ask Cucinelli’s people directly. It seemed a little strange that someone else would be a better expert on whether Jurich was in a photograph than Jurich herself, but the world of publicists is often strange, so I emailed Cucinelli’s people and waited.
And while I waited, I wondered what I was waiting for. These women had apparently both been there, at the symposium. (Bashir’s publicist eventually confirmed her attendance but also avoided the photo question.) How much did it matter if they’d actually posed for the photograph? There could be innocent explanations: Maybe they were both on conference calls, or in the restroom, and missed the photo session. For all we know, perhaps they were the ones who then said, Shoot! Can you edit me in? I want a copy for my fridge.
Whether they were Photoshopped would certainly matter for GQ on the journalistic level — that kind of image manipulation breaks a multitude of editorial sins. But did it matter on the cosmic level?
What does it mean when we talk about representation? Is it enough for women to be present at a symposium of the richest people on the planet, sharing ideas and providing their input? Or do we need physical evidence of this presence? Do we need to see them in photographs? Do we need to see them mingling with, as Cucinelli described it, “new Leonardos of the 21st-century.”
It’s important for women to be in the picture, literally, because that’s how we’ll later remember they were in the picture, metaphorically. That is how norms become normal: If you see female CEOs, you believe women can be CEOs.
But if Bashir and Jurich were at the conference but not in the picture — then why hadn’t anyone noticed the absence of the only two women and suggested the photographer wait until they were available?
Cucinelli’s people responded to my query:
“When we realized we didn’t have a shot where all attendees were represented, we added in photos of two female CEOs taken during the weekend,” read the statement. “The photos were shared and approved with all the participants including the two women, Lynn Jurich and Ruzwana Bashir. . . . We meant no harm or had any malicious intent in doing this and we are sorry.”
I believe this. I believe this statement. I believe nobody was offended, and everyone was happy with the outcome, and that my Wednesday morning investigation was a fizzle.
That being said. If two of the 15 male executives had been absent from the photo, I wonder whether anyone would have felt the need to Photoshop them in before submitting the image to GQ magazine for public consumption. Would someone have said, Whoa, we’ve only got 13 men in there, so we better make sure we stick in the 14th and 15th?
I’m guessing the answer is no. After all, Bezos was missing from the group photo, and for whatever reason, no one cut-and-pasted him in.
So it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, in the case of the two missing women, someone looked at the photo and had this after-the-fact realization: Uh oh — if we don’t do something, it’s going to look as though we invited zero women.
And that is the lesson, at the end of the day, for all of the villa-owning billionaires of the world. Next time you hold a symposium on soul and the economy, invite more women. Invite more women, and you won’t have to use Photoshop at all.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.