In countries like the United States, inequality between men and women is often reflected in the details. At Facebook, where less than a third of employees are female, design has tended to skew male, with men being featured dominantly in graphics throughout the site. Such particulars might seem insignificant, but they transmit real messages about how men and women should act.
The company has been addressing the problem this week by rolling out new icons. The “Friends” icon, which has long featured a man’s silhouette followed by that of a much smaller woman, was recast so that both are the same size — the woman actually stands slightly in front of the man. It also changed an icon that featured a group of friends standing in a pyramid form, led by a male figure, to be led by a female one instead. And all got modern haircuts to boot.
The effort was spearheaded, perhaps unsurprisingly, by a woman. Writing about the change on Medium, Facebook design manager Caitlin Winner explained that while she didn’t believe the original icon was intentionally sexist, it still offended her. “As a woman, educated at a women’s college, it was hard not to read into the symbolism of the current icon,” she wrote. “[The] woman was quite literally in the shadow of the man, she was not in a position to lean in.”
Its long reign on Facebook’s site is a classic example of how a lack of diverse perspectives in the workplace — not just at Facebook, but at many tech companies — makes design less inclusive. Apple’s emoji keyboard, for instance, once featured only white and yellow avatars, no dark-skinned ones; though the company’s making strides to address it, there’s still much to be done.
The lack of diversity in the design world also affects how spaces are physically constructed. Last year, Nicole Sullivan recounted in a blog post about visiting the San Francisco Apple store and having to walk up a clear glass staircase while wearing a dress to make her Genius Bar appointment. “Did anyone sit down and say, ‘I’m going to make it impossible for women (and men in kilts) to get to the Genius Bar?’ Of course not,” she wrote. “The architects just didn’t have me in mind when [they] built the store. This is why I believe it is incredibly important to have diverse teams. We will build the most inclusive products only when we have the most inclusive teams.”
Facebook’s new icons illustrate Sullivan’s point perfectly. And it’s actually the second time a minority at the company has helped make the site more egalitarian. As Winner noted, last year designer Julyanne Liang and engineer Brian Jew collaborated to create globes for the notifications icon that would more accurately reflect the locations of people in the Eastern hemisphere. “As a result of this project, I’m on high alert for symbolism,” Winner said. “I try to question all icons, especially those that feel the most familiar.”
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