Geneva is replacing men with women on half of the pedestrian-crossing signs across the Swiss city—and facing a fair bit of backlash over the decision.
The new signs feature six different silhouettes of female figures, including a pregnant woman, a woman with a cane, a woman with an Afro, and two women holding hands. Notably, the figures wear both skirts and pants. A video included with the official announcement on Jan. 16 shows municipal workers switching out 250 of the 500 road-crossing signs in Geneva (link in French).
The change is intended to reflect the diversity of Geneva’s population. The city’s previous pedestrian-crossing signs read as distinctly male, featuring the silhouette of a man in a suit with a hat.
“The omnipresence of stereotypical male representations in the public space, notably through traffic signs, reinforces the idea that some people, in particular women but also minorities, who belong less than others,” Geneva mayor Sandrine Salerno said in a statement.
Geneva is not the first city to overhaul its signage in an effort to improve representation. Some German cities, including Zwickau, Dresden, and Cologne, feature female as well as male figures (“Ampelfrau” and “Ampelmann“) on traffic lights at pedestrian crossings. The Netherlands city of Amersfoort introduced its iconic ponytailed female traffic light figure, “Sofie,” back in 2000. (Sofie can be found in several other Netherlands cities as well.)
Vienna installed traffic lights featuring same-sex couples ahead of hosting the Eurovision Song Contest in 2015, which remain in place today. The Austrian city of Linz then followed Vienna’s lead. And Melbourne tried out women on traffic lights in 2017.
Each of these initiatives has predictably kicked up controversy. This has held true in the case of Geneva, with some questioning how much good traffic lights do for gender equality. Others suggest the government ought to have better things to do with its time and funding (link in French). The Geneva initiative cost 56,000 francs, close to $58,000 US dollars.
Another common criticism of such efforts is that it’s better to go with a stick-figure design that can be read as gender-neutral. “I think we ought to take care not to continue to reinforce gender binaries,” graphic designer and artist Sheila Levrant de Bretteville told Next City. To that point, the Berlin senate shot down an effort to introduce the Ampelfrau in 2014 because they found the design of the female figure—who sported braided pigtails and a skirt—too clichéd (link in German).
Those who support putting female figures on road signs say that it’s symbolically important to affirm women’s right to use and occupy public space, given the long patriarchal history of attempting to confine women to the domestic sphere. And female traffic figures could also have safety benefits. A 2017 study in Germany, published in Frontiers in Psychology, found that men and women reacted more quickly to traffic signs featuring figures of their own gender. “Male subjects responded faster to male than to female traffic light figures, whereas female subjects responded faster to female than to male stimuli,” the authors explain.
The study was admittedly small, featuring just 30 subjects. But the authors note that this finding is in keeping with abundant research in social learning theory, demonstrating that “humans show a bias to attend to and learn from models of their own gender.”
In other words, we’re all primed to want to see ourselves reflected in the world around us—but historically, that privilege has been granted only to men. As cities around the world work to correct the massive gender imbalance reflected in street names and statues of public figures, it makes sense to consider the impact of signage, too.