Those of us with heightened attention to detail have probably noticed that Facebook’s “friend requests” icon has changed. What was once a vector of a man’s silhouette and a woman’s right behind him has now been changed so that the woman is now standing in the front and the man behind her.
It’s a small change—so small, in fact, that it might be easy to pass over or dismiss it as just one of Facebook’s constant design changes—but the story behind it is pretty great.
Caitlin Winner, a design manager at Facebook, was unhappy with the original friend request icon in the company’s glyph kit. It not only showed the woman as physically smaller than the man, but also with a chip in her shoulder so that she could be conveniently placed behind him. Winner explained in a post for Medium, “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.” This idea of “leaning in” was popularized by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. For women, the term has become almost synonymous to female empowerment, especially in the work force.
Winner, like a boss, took the matter of the sexist symbolism into her own hands and redesigned the icon—this time, with a woman standing in the front and the man with the chip in his shoulder. Unlike the original, she made both the man and the woman more similarly sized, and even went so far as to redesign the male and female vectors’ silhouettes so they look more modern. In addition, she noticed that several places on the Facebook platform used a single male vector to represent an action, which wasn’t good enough for Winner. “It didn’t seem fair, let alone accurate, that all friend requests should be represented by a man, so I drew a silhouette for cases where a gendered icon was inappropriate,” she said.
Winner’s experience teaches us a great lesson about symbolism’s importance, no matter how small. Facebook is a platform that reaches millions of people unknowingly bombarded with the the subtle-but-present implications of symbols that suggest male dominance. By making small changes to these symbols, we can restructure outdated and sexist traditions that are still perpetuated today.
Winner sets a great example for women in tech taking back the power and bringing feminism to the forefront. She demonstrates the significance of encouraging girls to explore positions like Winner’s by showing them how they can play a greater, wider-reaching part in our society’s gender expectations.