When I lie awake at night brainstorming ways to smash the patriarchy (as insomniac feminists do), the idea of changing up traffic lights has definitely never crossed my mind. On the surface, Melbourne’s plan to fight gender bias by replacing the standard male stick figure with a female stick figure sounds like a strange way to fight gender bias. But the experiment actually makes sense and has the potential to shed light on what affects our unconscious biases.
We’re accustomed to living in a world where men are viewed as the default — so it’s worth exploring whether or not replacing this particular representation with a woman can have a positive impact.
Everyone has unconscious biases when it comes to race, gender, religion, and sexuality. It’s pretty simple to identify blatant prejudice, but it’s also easy to forget that we live in a culture that sends us subtly prejudiced messages every day. Whether we like it or not, these messages do impact our thought patterns and behaviors.
Because unconscious biases are, you know, unconscious, they can be challenging to recognize within ourselves. Luckily, resources are available to help us pinpoint our own and adjust our behaviors accordingly. An Implicit Bias test created by Harvard professor Mahzarin Banaji is a great first step to identifying and understanding our own prejudices so we can get to work reversing them.
People may be dismayed by their own results because, despite the best of intentions, no one is truly immune. What matters is how we react to the results — instead of wringing our hands and somberly concluding that we’re terrible people, take a jaunt over to a 2015 blog post by bias expert Janet Crawford. She provides an accessible outline to correct these issues using three key steps: build awareness through observation, use our platforms and resources to improve representation, and actively seek out ways to improve our professional and social cultures.
Sure, putting skirts on traffic lights isn’t going to eradicate sexism or erase gender bias — but before people dismiss Melbourne’s plan as “ridiculous,” hopefully they’ll consider what the city is truly aiming to accomplish. If the traffic light experiment is a success, it’ll start an important conversation that could lead to increased awareness of issues like the wage gap, sexual violence, and reproductive rights.
Plus, haven’t men had enough time repping pedestrians at crosswalks? The new traffic light figure in town appears to be wearing a dress — but just remember that maybe it’s really been a cape all along.
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