Making gender-neutral emojis is more complicated than you think

Rami Niemi

At first, the problem seemed small. The “woman facepalming” emoji (🤦🏾‍♀️) sent from Android devices was showing up as a man on Apple devices. This sort of miscommunication happens when two tech vendors interpret the same emoji differently. For instance, when Apple changed its pistol emoji to a water gun in 2016, other vendors soon followed suit, presumably to avoid a scenario where one friend texts “excited for the beach [water gun emoji 🔫 ]” and the other receives the much darker “excited for the beach [pistol emoji].”
But, after a complete audit was done of all emojis with gender signifiers, it became clear the issues ran deeper than just miscommunication. Stereotypes abounded. Doctors, policemen, and rock climbers were all men, for example, while emojis of people being sassy or getting a haircut were always women.

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A series of articles and proposals were published, demonstrating the pervasiveness of the issue. In response, tech companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook began to ensure all their emojis came in male and female versions.
But Paul Hunt, a designer at Adobe, didn’t think this solved the problem. Hunt is a member of the Emoji Subcommittee at Unicode, the organisation which approves all new emoji and oversees the symbols across tech companies to ensure cross-compatibility. “The original Unicode guidance stated that depictions of emoji should be gender neutral,” Hunt says.
Emoji creation requires condensing entire worlds of meaning into a tiny, immediately legible image that will communicate across many cultures, and Hunt wanted to create characters which could communicate outside the binary genders. In 2016, he proposed the first set of gender-inclusive emoji designs.
Ultimately, Hunt found that when working with such a small image, hair became the most significant gender identifier. His women had longer hair, his men short hair, and his gender-inclusive emojis sported wavy hair that flared just below the ears. In 2017, his proposals for gender-inclusive emojis of adult, baby, and older person were accepted, and they prompted a new wave of designers to push forward and consider how to create characters outside the binary, moving away from more realistic emojis to more abstract and symbolic ones.

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“It isn’t meant to be a non-binary character,” says Jennifer Daniel, head of emoji design at Google and chair of the Emoji Subcommittee at Unicode, “but just the concept of farmer, or the concept of doctor, so you don’t have to have gender baked into those roles and professions unless you want to.”
In 2019, a new major emoji release added gender-inclusive options for all professions, fantastical creatures, sports players, and all other human depicting emojis, with the exclusion of seven emojis that retained gender-specific expressions, such as a pregnant woman and a woman in headscarf.
Suddenly, there were three gender options for zombies, royal guards, detectives and many other emojis that seemed barely distinguishable from one another. Hair length proved to be a critical gender signifier at Google too, and the emoji design team there used the colour orange for all their gender-inclusive renderings, so they would be immediately recognisable to the user. This included the orange tank top of the gender non-specific yoga emoji, as well as the orange tail of the merperson, who, unlike the mermaid with her seashell bra or the merman with his smooth torso, was designed with arms crossed against the chest.
Other companies handled this differently. Apple, for example, used grey for most of its gender-inclusive characters, and gave its merperson a gender-inclusive tank top instead of crossed arms. The goal in all designs was to remove markers that would signify a particular gender association, even if subtle. At Google, the gender-inclusive vampire emoji, as well as the office worker, for example, were freed from their collared shirts.

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“The concept of male and female don’t stand still, and yet we’ve all collectively agreed that a person with a skirt means woman when you walk into the bathroom. Women don’t all wear skirts, but we understand that as an abstract concept,” says Daniel. “So what we wanted to do was have an abstract concept to create this character that existed between the binaries.”
Not all users agree with the direction of this design strategy, which is focused on removing overt gender markers, and often relies on typically Caucasian features, like straight hair. Os Keyes, a PhD candidate at the University of Washington who studies gender, power and technology, describes the current designs as little more than “a feminine person in a suit.”
“Most stuff that is gendered is gendered feminine because stuff is male by default,” Keyes says, adding that this often results in intentionally androgynous characters being rendered as more feminine-featured, a result evident in the gender-inclusive emojis.
As the emoji keyboard continues to expand alongside ever-changing expressions of gender fluidity, emoji designers will have to keep up with how people are using their designs. “The more detail there is, the harder it is to identify with it, because those details are the exclusion of other details,” says Daniel. “When you include one thing, you intentionally or unintentionally exclude something else.”
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