Corner of Culver Road and Canterbury Road . Note the androgynous, alien looking figure on the crossing light. [Photo: David Kramer, October, 2019]
As explained by Aaron Miller in The Crazy Psychology of How Road Signs Work (Thrillist, 02/13/16), the design and placement of effective road signs involves quite a bit of social psychology.
Somewhat counter intuitively, road signs are specifically designed so less attention is paid to them:
Turns out, signs are standardized not just because of government regulations, but because they’re actually much more effective when you don’t focus on them. A standardized set means you’ll glance at a sign ever so briefly, get the message, and then go back to concentrating on not hitting anyone.
Likening road signs to a McDonald’s arch, Miller argues that — at an unconscious level — common road signs function like brands. You know exactly what to expect.
Earlier, this year I walked past a construction project at the Cobb’s Hill Gatehouse Building 3 at the base of Cobb’s Hill on Monroe Avenue. The site — manned by, yes, all men — included Men Working warning signs.No doubt I’ve passed similar signs thousands of times without — as perhaps designed — paying much attention. This time, however, rang a bell. Aren’t “Men Working” signs gender-biased if not sexist? Don’t women work there also?
At the site, I spoke with a city worker not daily assigned to the project, but who occasionally dropped by. The employee explained that the city contracts out construction work with contractors using their own equipment and signs. As for the signs, Men Working has always been the industry standard. The city employee readily acknowledged the signs could be seen as sexist, but surmised that “Men” is generally assumed to mean the broader category of “People” or “Humans.” The man added that the signs were more than ten years old. Given some new visibility regulations for such signs, replacing them could be costly.
Given the emphasis on standardization, the city worker’s rationale was not without merit. Nonetheless, I still had misgivings.Later, I learned the signs have generated some nationwide ripples of controversy. In 2008, As described in Frances Romero in “No ‘Men Working’ Please” (Time Magazine), Cynthia Good, CEO and founder of Pink magazine, a women’s business publication based in Atlanta, complained about Men Working signs — going as far as to spray paint extra letters, W and O, on one sign in protest.
Actually, for twenty years Atlanta was moving away from Men Working signs. However, rather, than making a statement on sexist language, the shift was an effort to make pictograms — not words — the basis of road signs. Nonetheless, Good quickly prevailed. In a relatively short period of time, the city of Atlanta agreed to address the issue by both buying new signs and covering old ones.
Furthermore, questioning Men Working signs issue is not just a symbolic gesture. As Sherryl Kleinman, sociology professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, wrote, “Signs such as ‘Men at Work’ unintentionally reinforce the idea that only men are suited for — and are capable of — doing outdoor physical jobs.” I agree. Words have consequences.
In 2012, as reported by the New York Daily News, ‘Men
Working’ sign deemed sexist, Ohio college tells crew to stop working until its removed, an Ohio community college demanded a construction crew stop working on campus until a Men Working sign deemed sexist and non-inclusive by a college administrator was removed, a claim denied by the construction company. In the end, signs were replaced.
On a positive note, in December 2018 as reported by the New York Post, “Construction company rolls out first inclusive ‘at work’ signs”, a Manhattan construction company unveiled gender-neutral Men and Women at Work signs — believed to be the first of their kind in the city. Plaza Construction replaced archaic Men at Work signs at the entrances to its job sites as part of a “female-friendly initiative” encouraging women to enter the industry by creating a gender-neutral workplace environment. Maybe the time is now — whether in the private or public sector — to follow the downstate model.I was not the only one who pondered the Men Working signs. At the Culver and Harvard site, I spoke with a woman who also noticed the sign every day when walking her dog. Her first reflexive response was that mostly men work in construction so, naturally, the sign reads Men Working. But then she wondered how female construction workers felt about the signs. What did they think? We both agreed that women workers might not protest the signs, fearing to be perceived as rocking the boat.We came to the same conclusion. Even without a public protest — as in the case in Georgia and Ohio — the signs should be replaced. We, the taxpayers, should take the initiative — preemptive equity — and not pay for sexist signs.
Of note, today I spoke with Brighton Town Supervisor William Moehle. Bill said the signs are absolutely sexist, noting that replacing the signs is a small price to pay. Furthermore, Bill promised to investigate — and I expect he will — how the Town of Brighton handles its road signs.
The November 11th edition of The New Yorker was a clever — sort of — spoof on working people. In the upper left corner is a small Men Working sign. My hunch is — for the progressive tendencies of the average New Yorker including myself — that most — following the social psychological arguments of Aaron Miller — did not register the Men Working image as sexist, even if many of the pictured workers are women.