Saturday, 11 August 2012

On signs

Not only in language is man presented as the norm, visual signs equally position him as the representative of humanity. Whether in Germany or the UK, it’s the ‘green man’ who tells us when it’s safe to cross the road:

A German pedestrian crossing
All under control

emergency exits are pointed out by the ‘running man’:

BS Running Man Symbol Left - Safety Signs
This way Ladies and Gentlemen

and on the road we are reminded that it’s ‘men’ who are ‘at work’:

7555 - Road traffic signs - Men at work symbol
Go on, make us a nice brew luv

and not women.

Only in the specific, such as pregnancy and child care:

Priority seat for people who are disabled, pregnant or less able to stand
There, there, a nice sit down

and toilets (of course!):
Women toilet sign  listed in other signs decals.
Ladies' time

are women (allowed to be) recognisable as women. The default human therefore remains (a) man.

In Dresden, however, ‘Ampelmännchen’ no longer hold supreme reign over directing pedestrians – ‘Ampelfrauchen’ are beginning to have their say over when it’s time to stop:

Until here and no further

and time to go:

Follow me!
And rightly so, with women still the predominant carers, and therefore educators in road safety, the green man actually knows very little about when it’s safe to cross. But women don’t just know how to cross the road, they certainly also know their way around the office and increasingly work in the Construction sector too, and moreover, are (supposedly) equal members of all other aspects of society – why don’t we finally show as much?

I, for one, am much happier to receive directions from a woman.


  1. Great blog. Very interesting. I'll be studying gender in language in my next year at Uni.
    I also post about language on my blog :-)


  2. Hi Sophie,

    I just had a look at your blog and really like your portraits! I also run a collaborative arts journal - maybe you fancy submitting something?


  3. What is male about the user of the emergency exit or the worker?

  4. If you look at toilet signs for example, the ‘man-shaped’ symbol stands specifically for men and not for women. The question is: how can the same symbol stand for women and men on any other sign? It’s confusing on the one hand: if the symbol was truly universal, could (should?) women use male toilets, for example? And excluding on the other: it evokes the image of men only and not of women.

    ‘Adapted’ signs like this one make a nice point: – ‘women at work’ are (according to our agreed symbols) definitely women and not men, which in turn highlights that ‘men at work’ are really just that: men.

  5. thanks for the posts. good stuff.