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How a subtle change to Facebook icons could make huge difference for gender equality

Facebook just made a subtle design change to its icons that probably won't be noticed by the vast majority of its users but that could profoundly influence perceptions of women.

The changes were made to the tiny icons that appear in the upper right-hand corner of the social networking site. For years, the company had used a "friends" icon with a man and woman, with the woman positioned behind the man. Worse yet, the generic female avatar looked like her shoulder had been lopped off.

The symbolism was glaring to Caitlin Winner, a design manager who spearheaded an effort to change the icons. And in an industry under increasing criticism for its lack of gender and racial diversity, such decisions on designs contribute to the unconscious biases that have made it so hard for women to advance.

"As a woman, educated at a women’s college, it was hard not to read into the symbolism of the current icon; the woman was quite literally in the shadow of the man, she was not in a position to lean in," Winner wrote in a blog post on Medium.

Without much fanfare, Facebook began to roll out the changes for desktop and mobile users this week.

In the new "friends" icon, the female avatar is placed in front of the male icon (right image):

Same with the icon for groups of friends, where the female figure is featured prominently:

And then there was the female avatar herself. She needed a shoulder and updates to her "Darth Vadar-like helmet":

The result was a more modern look and stronger posture. And while she was at it, the male icon got a new hairdo, too:

"As a result of this project, I’m on high alert for symbolism. I try to question all icons, especially those that feel the most familiar," Winner wrote. "For example, is the briefcase the best symbol for ‘work’? Which population carried briefcases and in which era? What are other ways that ‘work’ could be symbolized and what would those icons evoke for the majority of people on Earth?"

The changes may be hard to catch for Facebook's 1.4 billion users. But it is exactly these types of subtle culture biases that have contributed to gender inequality for pay, corporate leadership and representation in fields such as tech.

"It's so cultural, the unconscious biases that start from so young that lead people to give boys trucks and girls pink dolls. All contribute to biases that are very hard to change," said Robin Hauser Reynolds, the director and producer of the documentary "Code: Debugging the Gender Gap."