This was one of the questions I was posed by a third-year student writing a news article for his journalism subject at the University of Melbourne recently. The issue relates to a decision by the Committee of Melbourne to install 10 pedestrian crossing lights that depict a woman in a dress instead of the usual male figure. The so-called 'Equal Crossings Initiative' is intended to help reduce unconscious bias. Instead it seems to have created something of a social media storm and some fairly hilarious commentary.
Asked this question in all seriousness by the earnest university student, I asked myself the following questions:
- Does it really matter that the figures on the lights at pedestrian crossings appear quite masculine?
- Why do we assume they are men when they could be women in trousers?
- Just how important are the symbols on signs we see every day of our lives?
My answer was something along the lines of, "that I think anything that assists people to rethink and recalibrate their perceptions around gender roles and challenge the inherent biases we all carry, can only be positive...and if nothing else it will get people to look at the pedestrian signals (rather than their phones) more often!" Which is to say, it may all appear to be a storm in the proverbial teacup, but every little bit counts and the symbols we use in everyday life do feed our unconscious biases around gender roles.
As I was sitting at the kitchen bench having breakfast on the morning I was responding, I asked my 11 year old daughter what she thought about this issue. She made two observations:
- that pedestrian lights are currently inconsistent with the fact that it is mostly women who cross with children; and
- they send a message that people think that men are better than women.
Interesting comments that speak to the power of symbols. My seven year old son who also wanted to be asked, ventured that the gender of the pedestrian signals did not matter and he would be happy if they were all female or all male, but he just wanted them to be the same to avoid being confused!
In my research on the vexed issue of pedestrian lights, I came across Evan Mulholland of the Institute for Public Affairs, who had also been interviewed by our intrepid journalist and responded "It is not correct to assume this will have a positive impact of gender equality, most Victorians will find it a passing strange attempt at token gesturing."
While entitled to his opinion, Evan Mulholland is not entitled to everyone elses. I am not entirely sure how he knows what "most Victorians" will think about a policy without actually canvassing opinions from a broad cross section of society on the matter? In his article on the subject he also says the policy is 'Marxist' (really?) and takes a swipe at there being seven women from 11 on the Committee of Melbourne. This means 37% of the committee are men. Were the numbers reversed he would no doubt be celebrating.
There were clear indications that many of the right wing and shock jock commentators were affecting outrage based around the notion of 'political correctness gone mad'. What nobody really did was to review the number of pedestrian deaths on Victorian roads in the past five years (200) and consider this from a safety perspective. As I said earlier, at the very least this initiative will cause people to talk about and observe pedestrian signals which can only be a good thing.
As to advancing the cause for gender equity, it has at least caused some discussion and heated debate. Which shows us there is still a long way yet to go to achieve gender parity in this country.
Enjoy your weekend - and don't get run over reading this on your mobile device while crossing at the lights!