Annie Leibovitz, Gloria Steinem, and Johan Jervøe, Chief Marketing Officer of international financial giant UBS, had one surprising thing in common the other day. They all wanted to talk with the assembled crowd at San Francisco's Presidio about female leadership and entrepreneurship, a demographic that Jervøe's employer, banking giant UBS, is courting worldwide.
In announcing UBS's support for entrepreneurship, UBS is doing some of the typical things you might expect, for example, supporting awards, a pitch contest, and an intensive workshop in NYC for female entrepreneurs.
And it's doing some things that are perhaps farther reaching, including announcing a new commitment to diversity that extends the ethical pledge that UBS has rolled out in response to the ethical and, in some cases, criminal lapses that have marred the company's reputation in the past.
But one way it is announcing its commitment to powerful women is quite unusual: UBS is offering a cultural (in the sense of artistic) response to the question of how women are perceived-and should be perceived in the world at large and in business.
Which brings me to the setting of my talk with Steinem, Leibovitz, and Jervøe. Steinem was there because she'd chosen many of the portrait subjects for Leibovitz and written the catalog (Leibovitz calls Steinem the "official explainer" for her photography), Jervøe because his company had paid the piper, and Leibovitz, of course, because she'd taken the actual photographs for a new exhibit, Women: New Portraits, consisting of photographic portraits of successful and significant women that serves as a sort of meditation on how women's roles have changed in society today. (If you want to see the exhibit yourself, it's entirely free of charge as long as you can get to one of the ten cities around the world to which the exhibit is traveling over the course of 12 months.)
As you'd expect from Leibovitz, the quality, insight, and, at times, humor shown in the photographic portraits are uniformly first rate. And one thing that is striking about all of the portraits? The women portrayed not only weren't chosen for their looks, but aren't photographed in a way that emphasizes them (except perhaps in the case of her portrait of prima ballerina Misty Copeland, where her strength and power are integral to she does professionally). The subjects whom Leibovitz and Steinem chose-Malala, Mellody Hobson, Samantha Power, for example- and how she posed them has nothing to do with how these people look as women, and everything to do with what makes them powerful or important in society.
Of course, that is the norm for portraits of powerful men. But women? Not so much, and certainly not consistently.
Perhaps the crowd favorite of the show is the portrait of television showrunner Shonda Rimes, whom Leibovitz photographed slouching, with her feet up on the desk, texting or checking email on her phone, in, I kid you not, the presidential chair at the presidential desk in the Oval Office. OK, not the actual Oval Office, though that's the impression given, but a completely convincing set.
Or, Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., is photographed simply doing her work on her cellphone rather than, in any noticeable way, posing for the camera.
So why, at the end of the day, is UBS, the international banking giant with an ethically marred past, sponsoring this exhibit? Well, good question. Clearly they're not picking the portrait subjects to suit a corporate agenda (As Leibovitz pointed out, "all you have to do to prove this point is the fact that [banking gadfly] Senator Warren is one of my portraits up there there on the exhibit wall!"), but by choosing Leibovitz and the project they are, in a sense, doing just that. It's just that it's a corporate agenda of a different stripe. (Note: Senator Warren is pictured behind Leibovitz in the photo accompanying this article.)
Bringing it all back home to the office
One unusual aspect of this UBS effort is that it doesn't end on the gallery wall. The leadership portraits are intended, ultimately, to be hung on the walls of the UBS offices when the exhibit ends. In fact, should you go work for UBS in one of the leadership roles for which UBS is actively courting prospective employees, you could have one of these portraits hanging above your desk, potentially; as soon as the tour ends, they will be archived in UBS's renowned artwork archive, all of which is on rotating display at its offices worldwide as well.
This is perhaps my favorite aspect of this entire corporate, cultural, effort: the idea that UBS employees will now conduct their work in a workspace no longer dominated either by men or by images of them.