Emoji equality: Useless trend or meaningful push to encourage diversity?

Google's announcement of 11 new emoji depicting women in different professional roles is the latest push for more diversity among the selection of tiny characters.

New icons representing professional women to be added to emoji keyboards

A rock star and farmer are two of 11 new emoji depicting professional women that Google will introduce to promote gender equality. (Google)

To some, it may seem trivial to care about the deeper meaning of emoji. The popular cartoonish icons are often used as nothing more than a lighthearted addition to a text or online message.

But to others, like Aly Pirbay, 15, it's actually a big deal that tech companies like Apple and Google are trying to ensure people from all different backgrounds can see images that represent who they are among the rows of random objects, facial expressions, hand signals, smiling poop and crying kitties.

Aly Pirbay,15, uses emoji in nearly all messages he sends. He thinks the introduction of diverse emoji is important. (Simran Singh/CBC)

"I think that it's great with the recent change of skin tones and putting gender equality and including these new different things [in emoji]," Pirbay told CBC News.

The latest push for emoji equality comes from Google. The internet giant recently announced it will introduce several new emoji to represent women working diverse careers.

"While there's a huge range of emoji, there aren't a lot that highlight the diversity of women's careers or empower young girls," Google said in a statement.

In May, Google proposed the creation of gender-inclusive career emoji to the Unicode Consortium, the non-profit organization that decides what new emoji will be available. 

Google did so after critics spoke out about the lack of emoji representing professional women.

Feminine hygiene brand Always launched an online campaign for new characters that don't limit women to stereotypical female roles.

Amy Butcher, an author and assistant professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about the problem back in March. 

"Yes, there were women's faces, and tiny women's bodies. But for the women actually engaged in an activity or profession, there were only archetypes: the flamenco dancer in her red gown, the bride in her flowing veil, the princess in her gold tiara," she said. 

Unicode responded to the appeals on July 14 when it announced its approval of 11 of Google's 13 proposed designs. 

A female doctor, scientist, welder and mechanic are just a few of the new images. The new professional emoji will be available in a variety of skin tones and in male versions, too. However, it is still not known when these emoji will be available on devices. Unicode will also add male and female versions of 33 existing emoji. 


Made up of individual and corporate members, Unicode approves new emoji and standardizes their encoding for different operating systems.

Once it approves a new emoji, Unicode provides the unique code that allows companies like Apple and Google the option of offering the image on their devices. 

Mixed reactions

Like most topics, Google's latest emoji announcement drew a mixed reaction on social media. Many applauded Google and Unicode for promoting equality. 

"I think it's great" Aimée Morrison, a professor at the University of Waterloo specializing in new media studies, told CBC News. 

"There is such a rich set of emoji by many different ways of counting, but from the beginning there have been a really limited number of deliberately female emoji and among that limited number they have tended to be really stereotyped," she said.

But others criticized the announcement, with many questioning whether emoji diversity matters at all. 

Do emoji matter?

Many of the naysayers feel there is too much political correctness surrounding the tiny keyboard icons that most people just use for fun while texting. After all, how serious can a set of characters that include a winking face and cute monkeys actually be?

But based on the amount of public pressure for greater emoji diversity, it's clear many people believe this is a serious matter.

In April 2015, Apple introduced emoji with different skin tones for the iPhone following criticism from users that the characters depicting people were too white.

Apple's racially diverse emoji were introduced in April 2015. Before the update, there were only two visible minority characters on the company's emoji keyboards. (Twitter)

Before the Apple update, there were only two visibly diverse emoji: a brown man wearing a turban and an Asian man wearing a cap. 

Now, iPhone users have the option to choose between six different skin-tone modifiers for various emoji characters. 

​Same-sex families were also added to Apple's emoji update. 

Jeremy Burge, founder of Emojipedia, an online database and emoji dictionary, thinks emoji diversity is important.

"I think that if you restrict the emoji choices that can be detrimental to somebody who can't represent themselves in emoji," he said. 

A work in progress

But there's still a ways to go to achieving emoji equality.

Scope, a UK-based disability charity, released 18 emoji designs representing people with disabilities and Paralympic sports. 

Currently, the only emoji to represent disabilities is the wheelchair user sign. 

"We think this isn't good enough," Scope said in an statement. "So we hope that our 18 emoji designs will inspire Unicode ... to represent disabled people in a positive way." 

Scope released emoji designs to better represent people with disabilities. The U.K. charity hopes Unicode will approve the images. (Scope)

LGBTQ advocates have been calling for a gay-pride flag emoji and a formal proposal for the symbol was sent to Unicode on July 19. 

According to Emojipedia, other highly requested emoji designs include interracial couples and families, single-parent families and a woman with a hijab.

Youngsters care 

Google's addition of professional women to the pictorial language seems to be a hit with youngsters who spoke with CBC News. 

Hayley Kadak, left, and Mackenzie Marshall, right, are frequent emoji users. They send at least a few of the expressive icons in every text message. (Simran Singh/CBC News)

Hope Barrocks, 9, says she would use the new emoji.

"It's pretty cool," she said. "They are inspiring women and girls to be whatever they want to be." 

Hayley Kadak, 16, and her pal Mackenzie Marshall,15, both avid users of emoji, also gave Google's new icons a positive review.

"I think they are good for us as women. Because it shows that women are evolving," Marshall told CBC News. "I guess I'm not like a feminist or anything, but I do care about that stuff."


Simran Singh is multimedia journalist based in Vancouver. She is a graduate student at the UBC School of Journalism with an interest in culture, society and politics and is completing a summer internship with CBC News.