Melbourne in Victoria, Australia, is tackling gender bias with the help of traffic lights and the plan might not be as wild as it sounds.
On March 7, the city debuted what is presumably the most controversial change to pedestrian traffic signals ever: The standard male (aka pants-wearing) stick figure was replaced with a female stick figure (in a dress), all in the name of gender equality.
If it sounds silly, that’s because it is to an extent. Leaving aside the fact that assuming pants = man while dress = woman is a gender stereotype of its own, gender bias takes many forms with some very real-world effects, such as the wage gap, harassment, and just general inequality.
What Melbourne’s yearlong experiment aims to explore is whether or not seeing women represented in everyday aspects of our lives where men are viewed as the default such as with pedestrian signals can have an effect on unconscious gender biases.
Whether it’s gender, race, religion, sexuality, or any number of other factors, we’re all biased in ways that we aren’t aware of.
These are called “unconscious biases,” and they fuel countless decisions each of us make each and every day usually without us even realizing it. This type of bias is the product of culture, society, and lived experience, and it can be really tricky to identify. Google even made a really cool video identifying how unconscious bias plays into their interview and evaluation process to show how we can unlearn some of those biases.
Luckily, there’s a way to identify and address this type of bias, and it’s easier than you might think.
Harvard professor Mahzarin Banaji developed a test you can take to understand your own biases. And while you might be shocked by the results, remember that it’s not a judgment of who you are as a person, it’s the first step in becoming a more aware and unbiased individual.
In a 2015 blog post, bias expert Janet Crawford offered up some helpful steps to reduce your own biases in three simple steps: (1) build awareness through observation, (2) use whatever power you have to correct bias when you see it and improve representation, and (3) look for ways you can improve overall culture (whether it’s company culture, societal, or something else). She also has a really great talk on the neuroscience of gender bias that’s worth a watch.
Will putting skirts on pedestrian traffic signals for a year eliminate gender bias? Of course not. But it does help start an important conversation that society needs to have.
So if you have a moment, go on and take some of the Harvard bias tests. You might be surprised with what you find out.