Google recently introduced an enormous new set of emojis dedicated to giving women equal time on the job front. Where before doctors, police officers and others were exclusively men in emoji form, now there’s a choice. However, for many, this took far too long and leaves them asking why equal representation for women wasn’t inherent in the emoji-scape in the first place.
The answer to that simple question brings up a bigger issue. Is gender equality hard to find in the products of tech companies, because gender equality is hard to find in the companies themselves?
Who Creates Emoji?
Computers from two different companies can’t necessarily talk to each other. Smartphones are a good example of this: You can’t put an app designed to run on an Android phone onto an iPhone or vice versa. This is a problem when smartphones need to “talk” to each other, like in the form of sending a text message. Think of the Android phone as a person who speaks French, and the iPhone as a person who speaks Chinese. In order to understand each other, they need a language in common.
That’s where Unicode comes in. The job of Unicode is, at its most basic, to be the “common language” between different types of computers. To your phone, the texts you enter are a long string of numbers that get sent to another phone, which then looks at those numbers and uses Unicode to translate them. This is why if you send a smiley face from an iPhone to your Android phone-using friend, you both see it.
It’s far from a perfect system, but Unicode is generally accepted around the world and makes a hard job easier. And when emoji became popular, Unicode implemented a simple system wherein its codes were gender-neutral. If you wanted a police emoji, Unicode designated a number for a “police officer” emoji. The problem, as Unicode admits, is human error.
Why Did We Need Female Emojis?
In Unicode, the codes for emojis are standardized, but the art for emoji isn’t, which means that two people can send the same codes from two different operating systems and wind up with very different emoji. In its design document, implemented now to allow more gendered emoji, the issue was that, faced with one code to use for all situations, companies generally defaulted to the male version of that job. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t include male and female emoji, because they only had one code for each profession.
This isn’t the first time this has been a problem for Unicode. Google’s emoji were introduced in response to the #LikeAGirl campaign, which noted that women in emoji were mostly brides and mothers. Nor is it limited to sexism. The consortium dealt with accusations of racist emoji in 2013 and have been working to introduce more diverse emoji ever since, introducing more skin tones in 2015.
But why did it take an outside campaign in the first place?
The Tech Industry Has A Diversity Problem
Nobody thinks there’s a deliberate conspiracy afoot to keep emojis racist or sexist. This happened because nobody at the two biggest smartphone companies in the world has to think about how black people or women feel about emoji. At Apple, the majority of employees are white and male, and at Google, it’s even less diverse.
This leads to a problem best described as “normativity,” where everyone involved in building a piece of software assumes that everyone who will use will be exactly like them and because everyone involved in the review process is a white guy, there’s nobody to point out what they may miss.
Pokémon Go is having a similar issue. The mobile sensation has come under criticism for a lack of Pokéstops in non-white neighborhoods. It’s not because anybody at the game’s developer, Niantic, wants to stop non-white people from playing. It’s because the game was built off of Niantic’s previous mobile game, Ingress, and the Pokéstops were crowdsourced from Ingress users. Niantic, by the way, was previously owned by Google.
It’s an old refrain, by this point, that the tech industry has a diversity problem. But even though emojis and a lack of Pokéstops don’t seem hateful, they do reveal blind spots in the tech industry. Over and over, tech companies pass these blind spots on to their products (quite literal “blindspots” in certain cases). As technology becomes the driver for more and more of our society, it’s up to us to ensure nobody is pushed to the margins, and fixing emoji is the small but crucial first step in a journey the whole tech industry needs to take.