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Toronto tech CEO calls out 'subtle' sexism of emojis

Only men can be police officers, detectives or construction workers, according to Apple.

Heather Payne is CEO of Hacker You, a Toronto-based programming boot camp.

torstar news service

Heather Payne is CEO of Hacker You, a Toronto-based programming boot camp.

Men can be police officers, detectives or construction workers. Women can be brides, princesses or bunny ear-wearing dancers.  

At least, according to emojis.

This issue of gendered stereotypes perpetuated by emojis and the subtle limitations stereotypes placed on young girls is the focus of a video and survey from Always brand feminine hygiene products. The video — part of a campaign to promote confidence in young girls — shows girls sadly realizing many of their favourite female emojis only wear pink, and that few are playing sports and none are represented in professional roles.

The Always survey, conducted by MSLGROUP public relations firm, included responses from 1,000 American women aged 16 to 24 who were asked questions about their attitudes toward and use of emojis. The online questionnaire found that 75 per cent of respondents want to see female emojis portrayed more progressively and 67 per cent said the available emojis imply girls are limited in what they can do. 

“If you scroll through the emoji options ... there is a lot of pink and hearts and lipstick, kisses, a pink purse — a lot of emojis that are very stereotypically girly,” said Heather Payne, CEO of HackerYou, a Toronto-based programming boot camp. “Why isn’t there a police officer with a female haircut?”

Payne called the perceived stereotypes “super subtle.”

“A lot of people wouldn’t even notice until the moment you’re trying to use an emoji that represents (you),” she said. “If we’re trying to move society forward, it probably makes sense to have emojis that represent everybody.”

So why can’t Apple just pop a ponytail on the side of a police helmet?

It’s not that simple. 

Emojis are regulated by Unicode Consortium, a non-profit organization committed to developing, maintaining and promoting software internationalization standards and data. The organization is responsible for ensuring the images appear similarly across different platforms, but each platform — such as WhatsApp, Gmail or Facebook — decides exactly how the emoji appears, explains Montreal-based linguist Gretchen McCulloch, who is writing a book about Internet language. 

“What the body looks like is not up to Unicode, necessarily, but the people who make the graphic art,” McCulloch said. “Unicode doesn’t mandate the girls to be in pink. That was a decision on the part of Apple’s graphic design team.”

So while Apple’s “dancer” emoji portrays a woman in a red dress, Google’s depiction is a yellow blob with a rose in its mouth. 

In general, it appears Google prefers using gender-neutral images when Unicode doesn’t specify “male” or “female,” while Apple chooses more gender-specific images, said McCulloch. 

Apple declined to comment on details of emoji design or respond to criticism when contacted, but said the company adheres to the Unicode standard. 

But regardless of how platforms choose to depict emojis, Unicode’s modifiers have helped bridge identity gaps in the past, notably when skin tone modifiers were added last year. 

Indeed, gender modifiers may soon be on their way.

In a recent draft portend, Unicode unveiled draft plans to implement gender variants to emojis. This means one day a running man could be transformed into a running woman, however, the initiative is a draft and Unicode is still soliciting feedback.