The East German Ampelmännchen (little traffic-light man) at a pedestrian crossing. Today, he has acquired cult status and is a popular souvenir item. (Gordon Welters for The Washington Post)

For some visitors to Germany, street crossings are among the main tourist attractions. In the formerly communist east of the country, little traffic-light men, some equipped with hats or walking sticks, were installed to guide pedestrians more than 50 years ago. This tradition is more alive today than ever before, even in some western German cities.

But in the western city of Dortmund, the undeniable preponderance of male figures in the traffic lights is causing a controversy. In one of the city's districts, the Green and Social Democratic parties have urged the municipality to pursue gender equality among their traffic lights.

"Given the equality of men and women, a partial transformation of 'traffic light men' into 'traffic light women' would only be consistent," the two political parties said in a statement quoted in national media outlets. The ongoing debate is limited to Dortmund, but some eastern cities have had similar thoughts before: Starting in 2004, several cities replaced traffic-light men with traffic-light women. But even there, the female figures are outnumbered by the male ones.

Germans have debated gender equality for years, because women are still less represented in many sectors and generally earn less. A recently announced national rule is supposed to require certain companies to employ a minimum proportion of women on their supervisory boards as well as their boards of directors.

But proponents say that equality aside, there are other arguments for the introduction of traffic lights with female figures. "One advantage of the 'traffic light woman' would be the enlargement of the illuminated area," the Green and Social Democrats argued in their statement.

Take a look at one of the female symbols to understand what they mean.


A traffic light featuring a female counterpart to the former East German "Ampelmaennchen" (little traffic-light man) is seen in Sonthofen, southwestern Germany, on March 11, 2013. (Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/Agence France-Presse)

Even so, the proposal has drawn major criticism. The German daily newspaper Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung ironically proposed a compromise on Facebook — the introduction of 'traffic light couples' that would show men as well as women.

Speaking to the German newspaper Die Welt, the city's Social Democrats acknowledged that the proposal might seem a little ridiculous given the existence of much more pressing problems, including a wave of refugees.

The Green party, however, defended the idea. Party spokesman Sebastian Pastusczyk, in fact, went a step further and demanded a general overhaul of the traffic-light women currently used in other cities. "Not all women can identify themselves with a 'traffic light woman' that is wearing a skirt and has a plait," he said.