Google is launching 53 updated, gender ambiguous emoji as part of a beta release for Pixel smartphones this week (they’ll come to all Android Q phones later this year). Whether Google calls them “non-binary” or not, they have been designed to live between the existing male and female emoji and recognize gender as a spectrum. Given that Google collaborates with many of its rivals on emoji, it’s likely that Apple and others will release their takes on genderless emoji later this year.
The complex process of designing emoji for everyone
Jennifer Daniel, designer at Google, sits on the Unicode consortium–the organization that sets core emoji standards, including signifiers like gender and other details, that designers at Apple, Google, and other companies then follow to create their emoji. Last year, she pointed out that there were 64 emoji that, according to Unicode’s standards, were never meant to signify gender. In fact, 11 don’t have a Unicode-defined signifier for male or female at all–like baby, kiss, fencing person, and snowboarder. As for the remaining 53, they could be male, female, or neither.
Yet Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, and, yes, Google, have often assigned genders with their designs for these emoji. It’s why every construction worker across major operating systems is, by default, is a man. Unicode’s standards dictated a construction “person,” but tech companies decided to design them as construction men (and add women as a secondary option).
Of course, this practice reinforces stereotypes, but it can also just be annoying at times. When you text from iOS to Android to Facebook Messenger, you may unintentionally gender swap your emoji. Google depicts a person in a sauna as female. WhatsApp and iOS show them as male. The same gender swaps happen with climbers, handball players, elves, superheroes and villains, and merpeople.
In response, Google decided to be the first company to fill this emoji space between men and women symbols, and to acknowledge gender as something that was fluid rather than binary. “It’s like we’re all at the pool and it’s like the water is cold. Some people want to go swimming, but we’ll wait for someone to swim first,” says Daniel. “We just dove in first.”