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How sexist is the urban environment?

Are public spaces perpetuating gender stereotypes? Are road signs and infographics forms of everyday sexism? Why are theses issues increasingly making the front line in disputes about equality?

Fearless Girl. Shinya Suzuki/Flickr. Some Rights ReservedIn the last few months, there has been a spate of controversies in the media about everyday sexism in the design of traffic lights, the distribution of public statues and the inclusiveness of the imagery on toilet doors. At the heart of these controversies lies the idea that the physical environment in which we live encodes cultural values in ways which reveal deeply embedded prejudices in society, including sexist biases.

Such biases are becoming the subject matter of public art interventions that seek to challenge the stereotypes embedded in society – many of which are embedded in very literal, physical ways. At the beginning of April, an initiative aimed at highlighting sexual harassment on the public transport system appeared on Mexico City’s metro. This comprised a seat in one of the train carriages which included an extruding penis moulded into the plastic. A label next to it addressed to men only, explained that while it would be uncomfortable to sit here, this is nothing compared to the sexual violence that women often suffer on their daily commute. This conceptually-arresting piece of art suggested in a pointed way that men and women often experience civic space really differently.

In addition to such interventions, statues and monuments as an overt form of political statement, also become the focus for political struggle against the reproduction of sexism. In many locations around the world, there’s a huge gender imbalance in terms of the people who get memorialised. The campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez has estimated, for example, that only 2.7 percent of the statues in Britain are of historical, non-royal women.In other words, unless you’re a man, a monarch or a muse there’s little chance of getting yourself placed on a podium.

Statues and monuments as an overt form of political statement, also become the focus for political struggle against the reproduction of sexism. 

There have been various recent initiatives to address this. In April of this year, it was announced, after a long-running campaign, that the first statue of a woman was to be erected in Westminster’s Parliament Square. This will commemorate the campaigner and union leader Dame Millicent Fawcett. But despite being generally welcomed, there was, almost inevitably, some backlash against the decision – including suggestions that the ‘wrong’ woman was being honoured. 

On the other side of the Atlantic a similarly high-profile case has been the ‘Fearless Girl’ statue on Wall Street, depicting a small girl with hands on hips and defiant stance, staring down the famous ‘Charging Bull’. Erected for International Women’s Day by investment firm State Street Global Advisors - and orchestrated by advertisers McCann- this was intended to make the point that women are very much in the minority on the boards of big US corporations.

But here again, the event hasn’t been without controversy. An article in the New York Times, for example, pointed out that the firm backing the initiative has a very poor record itself as far as promoting women to senior management positions goes, and that the whole thing was as much publicity stunt as an authentic political statement. Then there came the complaints from the sculptor of the ‘Charging Bull’, Arturo Di Modica, who claimed that the new statue violated his artistic copyright by altering the dynamic of the original work. Which in turn led New York mayor Bill de Blasio to accuse him of sexism, arguing that ‘Men who don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl’.

Even more purposefully provocative in its use of public space as a site for political expression is the statue put up by a civil group in front of the Japanese consulate in the South Korean city of Busan last year. Again depicting a young girl, this time sitting with clenched fists and a resolute expression, it represents the plight of the ‘comfort women’, those who were forced to work as sex slaves for the Japanese army during the Second World War. The existence of the statue and the historical events it symbolises has led directly to strained diplomatic relations between the two countries – Japan recalled two of its diplomats when it was put up – and has re-opened deep rifts which go back decades.

In the case of each of these public monuments, it’s not just who, but also where that matters – both the position the statues are occupying and the provenance of their creation, being a core part of their meaning. ‘The Fearless Girl’, for example, takes its meaning from its position in front of the ‘Charging Bull’, which Greg Fallis describes as ‘the only significant work of guerrilla capitalist art in existence’. And because of this, it has opened up a debate about everything from the patriarchal underpinnings of capitalism, to the respective influence that private, commercial or civic bodies should have over public space.

 Everyday signs in the urban landscape can also reveal – and come to symbolise – key facets of the social order.

Yet it’s not just statues that encode cultural values, and that can become sites of political dispute. Everyday signs in the urban landscape can also reveal – and come to symbolise – key facets of the social order, including the distinctions and restrictions it imposes on people. This is most starkly shown in historical examples such as Jim Crow-era signs in the US, or segregation signs in apartheid South Africa, where the racist underpinnings of society were played out explicitly in the way the public space was organised.  

So how about the contemporary urban landscape? Do everyday public signs still encode distinctions and restrictions for different groups, and if so, what types of reactions do they trigger? It’s often when new designs are proposed, or some form of artistic intervention is staged, that issues of this sort become the subject of public debate. And just as with the statues, there have been several such examples in recent months, highlighting how everyday acts like going to the loo or crossing the street unwittingly involve very specific experiences of gender. 

One of the most prominent contexts in which images of gender are represented in public spaces is toilet signs – and for this reason, these have been at the forefront of the battle over transgender rights. According to researchers at Sheffield Hallam University, toilets have come to present a straight-forward binary distinction between the sexes in society, which can be highly problematic for trans, genderqueer, or non-binary people.  

The spread of these symbols around the world is a result of Western – and particularly US – influence, along with the rise of mass tourism and travel.

The ‘traditional’ designs for Men and Women’s toilets aren’t, in fact, that old. They derive from infographics developed by the US Department of Transport and the UK’s British Rail system for the major Olympic events of the 1960s and 70s. What has now become a global standard mark the difference between the genders with stylised depictions of a figure in trousers versus one with a fin-like skirt. The spread of these symbols around the world is a result of Western – and particularly US – influence, along with the rise of mass tourism and travel. In many of the contexts in which they’re used, therefore, their gender depictions don’t match local norms of dress. And indeed, in Western contexts, they often seem very dated, which has led to campaigns such as the #ItWasNeverADress initiative, which re-imagined the skirt as the cape of a superhero.

The separation of public toilets based on sex is itself a relatively recent practice, dating back to the end of the nineteenth century. It was motivated by an ideology of ‘protecting’ the virtue of women outside the confines of domesticity. The male bias that underpins these origins is often reproduced in creative takes on the two signs, which draw on cultural stereotypes of gender difference – often based on the exaggeration of attributes relating to biology, behaviour, or appearance to produce a humorous effect. In many cases, these are straightforwardly sexist, such as the one which has the word ‘bla’ written on one door, and the same word is written countless times on the other door. Or where the Men’s door is on the left, with a sign on the other door explaining that ‘Women are always right’. 

Although activism around transgender rights has promoted the idea of introducing a non-binary option, the most popular gender-neutral symbol for toilets is one which comprises a figure wearing half trousers / half a skirt. And in effect, this simply reinforces some of the stereotypes by still drawing on the ‘traditional’ representations of men and women. As many people have pointed out, by labelling a toilet gender-neutral you are in fact just labelling a toilet. So there’s no real need to try to represent gender in the infographic at all.

Another context in which there have recently been moves to challenge use of the abstract male figure as the generic symbol for humankind is that of traffic signals. In March this year, an initiative to use ‘female figures’ on pedestrian crossings was unveiled in Melbourne in Australia. According to those behind the project it was intended to remove ‘unconscious bias’ and promote gender equality. But, as with the traditional toilet sign, what made it a ‘female figure’ was simply the addition of the triangle-shaped skirt. So once again, while well-intentioned, the pedestrian lights left the idea of gender as a binary unchallenged, while also using an old-fashioned symbol to indicate womanhood.  

Arguably more successful have been traffic light project in Vienna, and London’s Trafalgar Square. The latter, begun as an artwork for London Pride in 2016, but since made permanent by Transport for London, has a variety of different symbols, including same-sex couples holding hands with their bodies creating the shape of a heart, and double female ⚢, double male ⚣, and transgender ⚧ symbols. 

Ultimately the success of challenges to these sort of stereotypical cultural values will be determined by the way they’re adopted by policy, education and public opinion. 

So what effect are these design changes likely to have on the way people think about gender in society? Can updating public signs help to tackle an embedded everyday sexism that seems to be part of even those societies which ostensibly celebrate equality and inclusiveness? Social change is always difficult to assess, of course, and certainly doesn’t happen overnight.

Ultimately the success of challenges to these sort of stereotypical cultural values will be determined by the way they’re adopted by policy, education and public opinion. What we can say, however, is that initiatives like these indicate a strong desire by parts of the public to live in a less sexist, and less gender-demarcated society. And they also raise awareness of how even the most commonplace aspects of the physical environment shape the stories we tell of own cultural identity.

About the authors

Korina Giaxoglou is Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the Open University. Her research focuses on narrative and social media. She is a member of IGALA (International Gender and Language Association). 

Philip Seargeant is Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the Open University. His research focuses on social media. He has worked as a consultant for the BBC on a number of programmes, and written for publications such as The New European, The Huffington Post, Times Higher Education, The Independent, The Washington Post and Libération.


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