by Sharon Florentine

Representation is important, even in emojis

May 19, 2016
C-SuiteCareersIT Leadership

I'm admittedly not the most tech-savvy person, but it doesn't take a tech genius to notice the lack of female representation in areas as basic as emojis. Now, though, that's about to change.

Here’s an embarrassing confession: I’ve had an iPhone for about, oh, the last eight years. But it wasn’t until two months ago that I discovered the emoji keyboard on my iPhone’s Messages app for the first time. Until I accidentally tabbed into it from the text keyboard, I truly thought people just memorized a whole bunch of keyboard shortcuts, like we all used to back in the AOL Instant Messenger chat days. Have you stopped laughing yet? How ’bout now? OK. I’ll wait.

What took me a significantly shorter amount of time to notice (like, two seconds) was the lack of emojis that showed women doing things other than wearing a wedding gown or getting a haircut. I mean, there’s a kimono. And there are plenty of gender-neutral faces, but…

Representation is important. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” Sheryl Sandberg famously said, in reference to launching a collection of modern stock photos with Getty to show women in their incredibly varied professional and personal lives. I’m not trying to say that a lack of female emoji is going to be the deciding factor in a girl or woman’s career decision or that it’s a huge step forward for equality in the IT world. But it is important.

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Millennials, Generation Z, and whatever clever name is assigned to the up-and-coming generations are all digital natives who grew up with iPhones and tablets in their hands. They’ve been text-messaging and using emojis for years to express themselves and digitally represent the world around them. If they don’t see women represented in these very basic areas of communication, then what does that say about representation on a larger scale? To me, it says we’re invisible. That we don’t make up roughly half of the population, and that we have nothing valuable to contribute to the digital transformation happening all around us.

But now, The New York Times reports, we’re finally getting female, professional emojis, too – or, we will if the Unicode Consortium, which is the group responsible for bringing new emojis into the world, approves them.

I can’t say it better than Amy Butcher, assistant professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University does in the Times article: “How was there space for both a bento box and a single fried coconut shrimp, and yet women were restricted to a set of tired, beauty-centric roles?”

As simple as it sounds, I think this is a great step forward. I’m excited to use them — especially now that I’ve found the emoji keyboard.