One of Facebook’s iconic logos just got an update. That tiny image that lingers in the corner of most Facebook pages — two small silhouettes of a man and a woman — it will be a little different on Facebook mobile pages starting this week.
The old image featured the woman’s silhouette behind the man’s, with the woman’s figure a bit smaller. In a Medium post published yesterday, Facebook designer Caitlin Winner said she didn’t like that. “Much to my dismay,” she wrote, “not long into my tenure as a Facebook designer I found something in the company glyph kit worth getting upset about.”
She continued, “The iconic man was symmetrical except for his spiked hairdo but the lady had a chip in her shoulder. After a little sleuthing I determined that the chip was positioned exactly where the man icon would be placed in front of her… I assumed no ill intentions, just a lack of consideration but as a lady with two robust shoulders, the chip offended me.”
So, Winner went about changing the friend logo. She fixed that drooping, chipped shoulder, and updated the hair, which she said previously was a “Darth Vader-like helmet.” Winner also updated the man icon, adding a “slight slope to his shoulders” and a hair style that is “smoothed down.”
This biggest change, though, was what Winner did with the proportion and framing of the two icons in relation to each other. Winner placed the woman in front of the man, and made their sizing appear more equal. She said of her urge to make that shift, “As a woman, educated at a women’s college, it was hard not to read into the symbolism of the current icon; the woman was quite literally in the shadow of the man, she was not in a position to lean in.”
Facebook heralded the update. In a statement sent to NPR, Maxine Williams, Global Director of Diversity for the company, said, “Caitlin’s fearless approach to changing our design is a great example of our open and bold culture – so much bias operates as a result of unconscious choices and influences. The more diversity there is in our population, the more we will be able to check ourselves on bias in product decisions and elsewhere.”
Williams continued, “We want to represent the many kinds of people that use Facebook – from the biggest to the smallest details – and this is a great example of what happens when you are not afraid to identify and address issues while being conscious that we will always be on a path to improvement.”
But besides this symbolic gesture at Facebook, gender diversity at the tech giant still needs work. Internal numbers from Facebook published last month show that more than two-thirds of all Facebook employees are male. Only 16% of Facebook’s tech employees are women, and only 23% of the company’s senior leadership are women.
The American Association of University Women (AAUW) has published extensive research on gender issues in Silicon Valley. They found in their most recent report that women make up only 26% of the tech workforce, and earn only 19% of all computer science and related bachelor’s degrees. Catherine Hill, VP of Research at AAUW said of the findings, “These numbers represent a decline in women’s representation over the last two-three decades.”
Hill does say she is pleased with Facebook’s new friend logo, but that it is not enough on its own to change lingering gender issues in the tech world. “We are pleased to see a new Facebook Friends Icon, and appreciate that it presents a different, more powerful vision of women,” she said in a statement to NPR. But she continued, “We hope that the company lives up to these changes, as we have a long way to go for women in tech.”
Facebook has made other gender changes recently. Last year, the company gave people wider choice in selecting a gender description on the site, adding a “custom” option that includes choices like Trans Male or Female, Cisgender or Androgynous. And the company has softened its stance on all users using their “real names” on Facebook profiles, after it led to the deactivation of dozens of accounts belonging to drag queens.
However much of a change for Facebook the new friend symbol represents, one thing is clear: when work spaces include more women, women are more likely to stand shoulder to shoulder with men — even in tiny Facebook logos.