How One Facebook Designer Made the Site’s Icons Subtly More Empowering to Women

No longer in 'the shadow of the man'

Headshot of David Griner

Symbols matter. That simple premise is what drove Facebook product design manager Caitlin Winner to tweak how the site's icons reflect women.

A few things bothered Winner about Facebook's longstanding "glyph" representing a woman.

First, she noticed that the woman's shoulders weren't symmetrical (unlike the male icon), which could be interpreted as having a chip on her shoulder. ("I assumed no ill intentions, just a lack of consideration. But as a lady with two robust shoulders, the chip offended me.") Also, in group icons, the woman was always positioned behind the male.

Oh, and then there was the female icon's "Darth Vader-like helmet."

After initially complaining to a colleague about the icon, Winner was directed to a core tenet of Facebook's workplace ideology: "Nothing at Facebook is someone else's problem."

So she tackled the fix herself, smoothing the shoulders and, after toying with the options below, settled on a "slightly more shapely bob" for the woman's hair.

But Winner kept going after that, deciding to modernize the male icon and develop a three-person image that could be used, instead of the existing male icon, in places where Facebook was trying to be gender-neutral:

One of the most glaring issues that needed to be addressed, though, was the "friends" and "groups" icon that always put a man in front of a woman.

"As a woman, educated at a women's college," she wrote in her Medium post, "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."

After attempting a side-by-side approach that showed each gender at an equal size, she realized it would just end up looking like "a two-headed mythical beast," so she kept the current format and moved the woman into the front and avoided duplicating the same male image:

Winner credits several colleagues with helping bring her updated icon ideas to life: 

"Matt Sain, a front end engineer, dropped the new male and female silhouettes into desktop web for employees and then shipped them to the whole world without much fanfare. Lexi Ross, a Product Manager, hacked several much-needed additions to Male and Female gender options in profile creation and added the corresponding alternative silhouettes. Brian Frick, master of icons, updated the entire glyph kit about six months ago, re-working and adding many new icons, informally adopting the new people icons in his work."

The icons are not visible yet for many desktop users, but you'll likely find them in your smartphone's Facebook app and can expect to see them popping up elsewhere soon.

For more details on Winner's design process, be sure to read her detail-rich post on Medium. 

@griner David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."