Can Google bring gender diversity to emojis?

May 11, 2016, 3:25 PM EDT
(Source: Frank Behrens/flickr)
(Source: Frank Behrens/flickr)

Google has tried to stay somewhat of a champion of gender diversity in Silicon Valley — indeed, it has made strides in diversifying its staff, although critics have called out its "hidden bias" and noted its workplace demographics have been slow to change. Now, in a seemingly innocuous yet important way, the company seeks to "increase the representation of women in emoji."

A group of Google employees has petitioned the Unicode Consortium, the non-profit that determines what emojis exist and are available for technology companies to make available to users. The group’s proposal aims to "create 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." 

Thus far, a big complaint has been the lack of professional women emoji, and the fact that images of professionalism including construction workers and police are left to male emojis.

While creating new emojis may seem a trivial way to empower girls, young women (under 30) are the "heaviest" emoji users according to the proposal. And the authors cite other monumental changes in American culture including the recent announcement from the Treasury that Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, and Hillary Clinton’s "closing in on" the Democratic party’s nomination as contributing to a turning of the tides for gender equality in the U.S. — something that should be reflected for the general smartphone user.

The proposal even goes so far as to cite the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, noting that — across the board — women are "gaining visibility and recognition as never before" and that it is time for emojis to reflect this shift in global gender equality.

The fact that this call for emoji change is reaching the levels of a petition from Google or a New York Times op-ed is indicative of a shift in digital communication. Emojis — symbols first-generation internet users once knew as emoticons — are now full-fledged methods of conversation. The proposal cites a report finding that 92% of online consumers use emoji. Language itself can often reflects broad cultural shifts; in this case, the shift in communication goes far beyond a smiley face or a "thumbs up."