In March, the feminine products brand Always published an ad on YouTube -- part of its girl-power #LikeAGirl campaign -- that showed teenage girls complaining about their options when it comes to the female emojis they use on their phones. There are girls in pink shirts. A bride. A flamenco dancer. It caught the eye of First Lady Michelle Obama, who tweeted: "Hey @Always! We would love to see a girl studying emoji."
Now a proposal for 13 new emojis depicting women and men in professional roles would do just that, giving girls not only a cute little cap-and-gown dressed feminine image to share on their phones, but a female scientist, software engineer, businessperson and mechanic, too.
On Tuesday, a team of Google employees presented a proposal at the Unicode Consortium, a not-for-profit group that approves new emojis, that called for creating "a new set of emoji that represents a wide range of professions for women and men with a goal of highlighting the diversity of women's careers and empowering girls everywhere."
The current lack of tiny digital images of a female CEO or factory worker to add to one of the hundred or so texts teenagers send every day might seem like a uniquely modern problem. But in its proposal, the Google team argued "isn’t it time that emoji also reflect the reality that women play a key role in every walk of life and in every profession?"
For one, young women are the most prolific users of emojis, they write, pointing to numbers that show 78 percent of women, versus 60 percent of men, are frequent senders of the images, with usage dropping off at age 30. Women are also apparently more likely to use emojis at work when communicating with peers, according to a survey from Adobe. Finally, the team cited increased searches in professional emojis over other categories, such as running.
To come up with which 13 professions to represent, the Google team, which includes Mark Davis, the co-founder and president of the Unicode Consortium, examined a variety of sources, including Bureau of Labor Statistics data and reports about professions dominated by women. To finalize their choices, they looked at the jobs that compose global GDP and "further broke them down categorically based on global popularity, growth, and overall representation," as well as weighing campaigns that have promoted women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.
The team said in its proposal that it would like to have the emojis standardized year's end. The final 13 images are expected to show men and women representing careers including medicine, metallurgical workers and yes, even rock stars.
The proposal follows news that emojis would finally become more racially diverse, letting users pick skin tones. There has also been increasing attention to the lack of women in emojis, the Google team noted in its proposal, including a New York Times op-ed titled "Emoji Feminism."
Jeremy Burge, the founder of Emojipedia, a search engine for emojis, said in an email that "when I look at the current set of emojis, it’s clear there are gaps when it comes to women," he wrote, adding "it’s great to see Google taking a stand on this issue. Those raising daughters in particular will be thankful for changes like this."
Kevin Miller, a senior researcher for the American Association of University Women, says that's because the phrase "you have to see it in order to be it" about media stereotypes is also applicable here. "Especially for girls, it's harder for them to imagine doing things that are out of the norm if they can't see those things," he said. "If the emojis kids are using are gender-stereotyped, that may have an impact."
Consider a study last year done by researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County that examined how digital images can affect gender biases. Their study found how often women were underrepresented in Google searches of various professions -- search "CEO" and the first female image is one of CEO Barbie -- as well as evidence, in a small sample, that image search results could sway participants' opinion about how many men or women work in a given field.
AAUW's Miller points to the attention Lego received in recent years for finally adding women professionals -- scientists, oceanographers, veterinarians -- as another example of the appetite for more representative images in the toys or digital tools young women use. "Those got a lot of attention because people want women in the popular image to be [able] to do things, to do science," he said, noting the importance of having women in the room when decisions are made. "I think there's more awareness of it as time goes on."