Culture

City Installs ‘Female’ Traffic Signals for Equality, Gets Slammed for Stereotyping Women as Skirt-Wearing

Patriarchal crosswalk sign in New York City; inset: Melbourne’s new edition (Image: ABC via Twitter)
Officials in an Australian city worried that pants-wearing traffic signals were perpetuating ‘unconscious bias.’

The city of Melbourne, Australia, has started installing dress-wearing, “female” traffic signals in the name of gender equality, and now they’re being hit for perpetuating the sexist idea that women should wear dresses. 

According to an article in the local news source ABC, the city started installing the new lights on Tuesday as part of a campaign to eliminate “unconscious bias.” In other words, the city was concerned that seeing only “male” traffic signals was causing its residents to subconsciously develop the idea that male people mattered more than female people. 

“The idea is to install traffic lights with female representation, as well as male representation, to help reduce unconscious bias,” chief executive Martine Letts told ABC. “The aim is to move towards one-to-one male and female representation across the state of Victoria.”

Although the total cost of reaching this one-to-one goal isn’t clear, ABC reports that it costs an average of $8,400 to change six lights. Now, you might be tempted to say that no price is too high when it comes to something that will so clearly reduce gender bias, but it turns out that this seemingly heroic initiative might not have been worth the money after all — especially considering that some people find it to be biased in itself: 

These people make great points. I mean, why weren’t we assuming that some of the pants-wearing traffic signals were women all along? Is Melbourne saying that you’re not a real woman if you don’t wear a dress? Oh, and by the way, why are all of these dress-wearing ones being declared “female”? Don’t these people know that not all people who wear dresses are women? Don’t they know that not all people who have vaginas are women? 

Now, I’m not saying that the pants-wearing signals aren’t problematic. They certainly are, for several reasons. For example: The signals have all of their limbs, and they appear to be walking. Isn’t that a little ablist? Why no one-legged and/or wheelchair-using signals? Why no dress-wearing, male-to-female-transgender, wheelchair-using signals? Why no signals that alternate between pants and skirts to represent gender fluidity? 

The truth is, representing “female” as “dress-wearing” certainly is using a stereotype. But here’s the thing: There is absolutely no way to make a visual representation of “female” — or of any group — without stereotyping. Think about it: Giving the “female” signals long hair would be perpetuating the stereotype that women have long hair, and giving the “female” signals curves would be offensive to small-chested (and male-bodied) women. 

So, just what is Melbourne to do? Twitter is full of suggestions, for example, this guy: 

At first glance, this seems like a good idea. Perhaps Melbourne should just spend however many tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars it would take to change all of the signals to a simple “Walk” and “Don’t Walk” to avoid the problems associated with visual representation. But on second thought, maybe not. After all, that would be offensive to the people who cannot walk. Perhaps “Walk and/or Wheel” and “Don’t Walk and/or Wheel” would suffice? Or maybe — just maybe — Melbourne can spend its time and money addressing real, important issues instead of wasting it on political-correctness theatrics in the name of “fixing” a “problem” that no sane human was ever worried about in the first place. 

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