Can emojis help eliminate gender inequity? Google wants to try

Google has decided to play the "woman card" with a proposal for new emojis aimed at "reducing gender inequality." But can cute pictures in text messages really be expected to boost women's wages or bring an end to mansplaining?

Those cute icons can send more than one kind of message about girls and women

Google submitted a proposal to the Unicode Consortium for 13 new emojis depicting working women. (Google/Associated Press)

Google has decided to play the "woman card" with a proposal for new emojis aimed at "reducing gender inequality."

But can cute pictures in text messages really be expected to boost women's wages or bring an end to mansplaining

Earlier this week, Google suggested a new set of emojis representing professional women to the Unicode Consortium, the body that oversees international standards for computer language including emojis — those tiny images you can add in messages sent via text and messaging apps, meant to convey ideas or emotions.

"No matter where you look, women are gaining visibility and recognition as never before. Isn't it time that emoji also reflect the reality that women play a key role in every walk of life and in every profession?" Google said in its submission.

Among those who have called for more representative emojis is Michelle Obama, who tweeted last month, in response to a campaign by the feminine hygiene brand Always, that she would love to see a "girl studying" emoji.

Women might reasonably feel shortchanged by the current crop of emojis: men are depicted swimming, surfing, rowing a boat, riding a bike and racing a horse, while women are shown painting their fingernails (pink, of course), getting a face massage and dancing in bodysuits and bunny ears.

Google's proposed set of 13 includes female representations for doctor, teacher/professor, scientist, rock star and "software engineer/person coding/working on laptop."

'Hungry' for role models

One women's advocate says you just never know what's going to make a difference.

"Young girls and women are hungry for these role models," says Diane Hill of the Canadian Women's Foundation. "One part of it is making sure they understand this is possible."

Hill, whose organization funds programs to help girls and women move into non-traditional trades, says Google has the right idea, but it's just one step in a complicated recipe for equality.

"The only way it could actually lead to any kind of change is that it's an additional voice in the conversation that we need change," she told CBC News.

And while emojis may seem frivolous, they hold a lot of symbolic meaning.

"Visual imagery is very powerful, and it's often taken in at a subconscious level, and it's sort of how we learn about possibilities in the world," Hill says.

Emojis add 'another layer' to conversations

With an estimated six billion emojis sent around the world each day, they are an important communication tool, says one digital culture expert.

"The adoption of emoji — it adds another layer to conversations, the same way tone of voice might over the phone, or a facial or physical gesture might in conversation, in person," says Ramona Pringle, an assistant professor in new media at Ryerson University, pointing to the proliferation of other image-based platforms like Instagram, Vine and Snapchat.

"These are the tools we use to define ourselves, to represent ourselves. And when we don't have the tools to do that in an accurate or representative way, it is damaging," Pringle says.

The Unicode universe has expanded several times to be more inclusive. Last year, it added emojis depicting same-sex families, and Apple added a way to modify the skin tone of Caucasian emojis with a choice of five variations.

This combination made from images provided by Apple shows a set of racially diverse emojis released with iPhone's operating system update in April 2015. (Apple/Associated Press)

In the same way, the new set would reflect a segment of society back to themselves — particularly young women 25-29, who are the heaviest users of emojis, according to numbers crunched by AdWeek and cited by Google in its proposal.

Pringle says seeing ourselves represented in the world is not a luxury, it's an imperative, and these emojis can have an effect.

"If a little girl only sees images of men associated with roles like astronauts and scientists, those roles feel further away from her reality," she says. "So while it might feel silly to say a female emoji can make a difference in the lives of young women, there is some truth to that."

But Pringle's support of Google's efforts comes with a few qualifications. "Maybe these are lofty goals, but you have to start somewhere," she says. "Should Google also be looking into gender parity in their development teams? Yes. Parity in pay? Yes. Should they be trying to set an example when it comes to the toxic environments we see online for women? Yes."