Sending the wrong message: Do emojis reinforce female stereotypes?
A screengrab from the 'Let's Make Girl Emojis' video by Lucy Walker, for the Always #LikeAGirl campaign. (YouTube / Always)
Karolyn Coorsh , CTVNews.ca
Published Wednesday, March 16, 2016 6:00AM EDT
When Christina Truong wanted to promote her fitness class schedule, she knew where to turn to spread the word: social media.
The 36-year-old web developer, who teaches a weight training class in her spare time, picked up her mobile phone, and browsed through her emojis in order to add a little colour to her tweet.
Truong, who is based in Toronto, could only find an icon depicting a male lifting weights.
“When I went to use it, it just felt kind of weird because it’s a male emoji,” Truong said in a recent interview with CTVNews.ca.
Truong, a former director of curriculum for Ladies Learning Code, was a little disappointed.
Acknowledging that she never previously paid much attention to whether emojis are male or female, Truong said that she realized the options for female athletic emojis were limited, if not non-existent.
Take a quick browse through the plethora of emojis on a phone, and you may see that the “female” emojis typically show women or girls putting on nail polish, getting a haircut or dancing in a bunny outfit, while emojis depicting professions or sports are typically portrayed by males.
It may seem fairly innocuous, but when millions of women and girls with access to a mobile phone or computer pepper their text conversations with emojis on a daily basis, those tiny icons suddenly have huge implications.
Female role models such as Truong say those emojis can subtly reinforce the societal limitations that have been placed on girls for generations.
That’s why Truong is a spokesperson for a new campaign seeking to raise awareness about the lack of female-empowerment emojis.
The latest Like A Girl campaign, by feminine hygiene product company Always, suggests that the range of available “female” emojis is limited, and could shake a young girl’s confidence as she enters her adolescent years. In a statement, Always said the campaign aims to “empower girls to ask for emojis that are as unstoppable as the girls they represent.”
A survey conducted by Always and MLS Group in the U.S. revealed that 54 per cent of girls, aged 16-24, believe that female emojis are stereotypical. Half of the girls in the same age group also said that they found emojis to be a limited representation of females’ interests.
Seventy-five per cent of the girls polled said they would like to see female emojis portrayed “more progressively,” including options showing female athletes and in law enforcement roles.
In a short video made by documentary filmmaker Lucy Walker for the campaign, girls of varying ages and backgrounds were asked if they felt the available emojis accurately represented their interests and activities.
“There are no girls in the profession emojis,” says one girl in the video. “Unless you count being a bride a profession.”
Another girl looks at her mobile phone and gets excited when she thinks she’s found a female surfer emoji. “Nope, it’s just a guy with long hair,” she says with a laugh.
Some of the girls interviewed in the video said they would like to see a female lawyer emoji, or a female drummer. How about a female archer?
Truong says she got behind the Like a Girl campaign because she agrees that the choice of emojis sends out the wrong message, one that can be particularly dangerous as girls enter the workforce. She draws on her own experiences, saying that she still sees stereotypical attitudes even after 10 years in the tech field.
“The more senior roles that I get, I deal a lot with surprise,” Truong said. “When I walk into a room and they realize I’m the speaker or I’m the teacher, then it’s sort of like, ‘Huh, oh, a girl.’
“It’s very subtle, just the way the emojis are subtle.”
In a statement, Always Like A Girl campaign leader Michele Baeten acknowledged that societal limitations are broader than just emojis.
“But when we realized that stereotypical, limiting messages are hiding in places as innocent as emojis, it motivated us to demand change,” said Baeten, who is also an associate brand director for Always.
It’s not the first time gender-based icons featured on popular social networking sites have garnered attention. Last July, Facebook designer Caitlin Winner said in an article posted on Medium that she altered tiny icon buttons on the website so that women had a more prominent presence. When she first started at Facebook, Winner said, she was dismayed to see a man placed in front of a woman in an icon that represented people.
“It didn’t seem fair, let alone accurate, that all friend requests should be represented by a man, so I drew a silhouette for cases where a gendered icon was appropriate,” Winner wrote.
Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg welcomed Winner’s redesign. “Facebook is a global community, and we want to represent the many kinds of people who use our service,” Sandberg said at the time.
“Symbols matter – and a small image can carry a giant message.”
Embedded images courtesy Always