Have Emoji Become 'Problematic'?


by Sarah Emerson
May 13 2016, 7:35pm

Proposed emoji women. Image: Unicode

Google wants more professional women… depicted as emoji.

The tech giant issued a proposal at the Unicode Consortium this week to create a new set of emoji that would represent women in a variety of job roles, ranging from doctor to mechanic to chef. Its goal is to see the emoji implemented by the end of 2016, at which time sexism will be eradicated forever and Hillary Clinton will be inaugurated as the first female president of the United States, yaaaaaassss.

Even though the Unicode TR52 update, released in February, currently allows people to select more gender neutral characters, the new version doesn't issue any changes that would broaden the scope of how female emoji are portrayed. The expansion, Google writes, would serve the purpose of "highlighting the diversity of women's careers and empowering girls everywhere."

Inspired by recent discussions about the burgeoning state of so-called "emoji feminism," Google recognized that young women—who, according to the company, are the heaviest emoji users—have few female emoji options to choose from that don't illustrate them as hair-flipping, nail-painting, salsa-dancing, jobless twentysomethings.

"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?" Google asks.

This is all fair and good. Emoji absolutely should reflect the wonderful diversity of the wide world around us. When Unicode finally embraced emoji that featured a spectrum of skin color, most viewed it as a positive and much-needed update. However, while women certainly occupy more professional roles than bride, information desk person, or weird lady getting a head massage, the tech industry that Google has heavy-handedly shaped hasn't acknowledged that yet.

Since when did emoji become more worthy of a culture change than the industry's actual, rampant, real-life gender gap? Is Google's social justice campaign genuine or just problematic?

The company cited an unabashedly branded #LikeAGirl emoji campaign as a tipping point for its social disruption. The "groundbreaking" movement was spearheaded by feminine products brand Always (get it? Because tampons), and even warranted a tweet from First Lady Michelle Obama. In a subsequent survey, Always revealed data that suggested 75 percent of girls wished to see emoji portrayed more progressively.

In its proposal, Google also invoked the name of American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who was recently selected to replace slaveholder and noted asshole Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. Is this really on the same level as an emoji update? Definitely not, but you get the point they're trying to make.

"No matter where you look, women are gaining visibility and recognition as never before," states the company.

But if Google held a mirror up to itself, it would likely see a vastly different reality.

According to the company's own diversity figures, 28 percent of its workforce is comprised of women, and only 16 percent of leadership roles at Google are filled by women.

When Google employees populated an internal spreadsheet with their salary figures last year, it was revealed that male staff often received drastically higher pay than their female counterparts. An engineer, who has since left the company, tweeted that Google allegedly reprimanded her for encouraging her colleagues to discuss the company's pay scale. Typically, talking about compensation is beneficial to female employees. Women have less access to salary information, and income transparency at companies such as Google can help them to negotiate for fair pay.

And although Google has made dubiously earnest attempts in the past to address its "insidious frat-house attitude," its abysmal diversity stats speak louder than any female emoji with a hardhat will.

So whether or not its push to include professional women emoji is a legitimate pursuit for equality remains to be seen. I'm skeptical that Google's Unicode crusade will do anything more than offer women some cute, novel emoji to play with. I, for one, love the proposed "technology" girl who appears to be serenely (psychotically?) smiling at her laptop. She is obviously me.

Women could always use more reminders that they're killing it in the professional arena. But even if we don't get those new emoji, we'll continue to use our current options to express what we've been saying all along: Hire us, fire us, just treat us like equals.