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Gender symbol

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Image shows male and female symbols incised deeply
Gender symbols on a public toilet in Switzerland

A gender symbol is a pictogram or glyph used to represent sex and gender, for example in biology and medicine, in genealogy, or in the sociological fields of gender politics, LGBT subculture and identity politics.

In his books Mantissa Plantarum (1767) and Mantissa Plantarum Altera (1771), Carl Linnaeus regularly used the planetary symbols of Mars, Venus and Mercury – , ,  – for male, female and hermaphroditic (perfect) flowers, respectively.[1] Botanists now use for the last.[2]

In genealogy, including kinship in anthropology and pedigrees in animal husbandry, the geometric shapes or are used for male and for female. These are also used on public toilets in some countries.

The modern international pictograms used to indicate male and female public toilets, 🚹︎ and 🚺︎, became widely used in the 1960s and 1970s. They are sometimes abstracted to for male and for female.[3]

Biology and medicine[edit]

Gender symbol
In UnicodeU+2640 FEMALE SIGN U+2642 MALE SIGN



The three standard sex symbols in biology are male , female and hermaphroditic ; originally the symbol for Mercury, , was used for the last. These symbols were first used by Carl Linnaeus in 1751 to denote whether flowers were male (stamens only), female (pistil only) or perfect flowers with both pistils and stamens.[1] (Most flowering and conifer plant species are hermaphroditic and either bear flowers/cones that themselves are hermaphroditic, or bear both male and female flowers/cones on the same plant.) These symbols are now ubiquitous in biology and medicine to indicate the sex of an individual, for example of a patient.[4][a]


Minimal kinship chart: a male and female producing male and female offspring

Kinship charts use a triangle for male and circle for female.[6][7] Pedigree charts published in scientific papers use an earlier anthropological convention of a square for male and a circle for female.[8]

Before a shape distinction was adopted, all individuals had been represented by a circle in Morgan's 1871 System of Consanguinity and Affinity of Human Family, where gender is encoded in the abbreviations for the kin relation (e.g. M for 'mother' and F for 'father').[9] W. H. R. Rivers distinguished gender in the words of the language being recorded by writing male kinship terms in all capitals and female kinship terms with normal capitalization. That convention was quite influential for a time, and his convention of prioritizing male kin by placing them to the left and females to the right continues to this day though there have been exceptions, such as Margaret Mead, who placed females to the left.[10]


In linguistics, a 'grammatical gender' system is a specific form of a noun class system, where nouns are assigned to gender categories that are often not related to the real-world qualities of the entities denoted by those nouns. In languages with grammatical gender, most or all nouns inherently carry one value of the grammatical category called gender, typically 'masculine', 'feminine', and 'neuter'. In addition to U+2640 FEMALE SIGN and U+2642 MALE SIGN, Unicode encodes a symbol for the neuter gender, U+26B2 NEUTER.

Public toilets[edit]

The modern gender symbols used for public toilets, 🚹︎ for male and 🚺︎ for female, are pictograms created for the British Rail system in the mid-1960s.[11] Before that, local usage had been more variable. For example, schoolhouse outhouses in the 19th-century United States had ventilation holes in their doors that were shaped like a starburst Sun or like a crescent Moon , respectively, to indicate whether the toilet was for use by boys or girls.[12] The British Rail pictograms – often color-coded blue and red[citation needed] – are now the norm for marking public toilets in much of the world, with the female symbol distinguished by a triangular skirt or dress, and in early years (and sometimes still) the male symbol stylized like a tuxedo.[3]

These symbols are abstracted to varying degrees in different countries – for example, the circle-and-triangle variants (female) and (male) commonly found on portable toilets, to the extreme of a triangle (representing a skirt or dress) for female and an inverted triangle (representing a broad-shouldered tuxedo) for male in Lithuania.[3]

In elementary schools, the pictograms may be of children rather than of adults, with the girl distinguished by her hair. In themed locations, such as bars and tourist attractions, a thematic image or figurine of a man and woman or boy and girl may be used.[citation needed]

In Poland, an inverted triangle is used for male while a circle is used for female.[3]

In mainland China, silhouettes of heads in profile may be used as gender pictograms,[citation needed] generally alongside the Chinese characters for male () and female ().[13]

Some contemporary designs for restroom signage in public spaces are shifting away from symbols that demonstrate gender as binary as a way to be more inclusive.[14][15]

Sexual orientation and gender politics[edit]

Lesbian and gay male interlocked gender sex symbols

Since the 1970s, variations of gender symbols have been used to express sexual orientation and gender politics. Two interlocking male symbols (⚣) are used to represent gay men while two interlocking female symbols (⚢) are often used to represent lesbians.[16] Two female and two male symbols interlocked represent bisexuality, while an interlocked female and male symbol (⚤) represents heterosexuality.[17]

The combined male-female symbol (⚦) is used to represent androgyne or transgender people; when additionally combined with the female (♀) and male (♂) symbols (⚧) it indicates gender inclusivity, though it is also used as a transgender symbol.[18][19]

The Mercury symbol (☿) and combined female/male symbol (⚥) have both been used to represent intersex people.[20][17] A featureless circle (⚪︎) and neuter symbol (⚲) are used to represent both asexuality and non-binary people.[21][17]

Since the 2000s, numerous variants of gender symbols have been introduced in the context of LGBT culture and politics.[17] Some of these symbols have been adopted into Unicode (in the Miscellaneous Symbols block) beginning with version 4.1 in 2005.


Unicode Standard name Symbol Additional remark in standard[22][23]
U+26A5 MALE AND FEMALE SIGN Intersex, androgynous; hermaphrodite (in botany)
U+1F6B9 🚹 MENS SYMBOL 🚹︎ Man symbol; men's restroom
U+1F6BA 🚺 WOMENS SYMBOL 🚺︎ Woman symbol; women's restroom
U+1F6BB 🚻 RESTROOM 🚻︎ Man and woman symbol with divider; unisex restroom[b]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ In the biological sense of the word, there are no human (or mammalian) hermaphrodites, but 'hermaphodite' has long been used for ambisexual people who are now more commonly labeled intersex.[5]
  2. ^ This symbol is often seen on an outer door leading to separate facilities behind inner doors, in which case the glyph has a dividing line separating the men and women symbols


  1. ^ a b Stearn, William T. (May 1962). "The Origin of the Male and Female Symbols of Biology". Taxon. 11 (4): 109–113. doi:10.2307/1217734. JSTOR 1217734. S2CID 87030547.
  2. ^ Niki Simpson, Botanical symbols: a new symbol set for new images, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, Volume 162, Issue 2, February 2010, Pages 117–129
  3. ^ a b c d Glancey, Jonathan (11 September 2014). "The genius behind the stick figure toilet signs". BBC Future. In Poland, meanwhile, you can come across lavatories indicating 'gents' with a triangle and 'ladies' with a circle, while in Lithuania men are represented by an inverted pyramid and women by a pyramid standing the right way up. [...] One of the best early examples of intuitive global signs for public lavatories was that created for British Rail in the mid-1960s. [...] In the 1970s, the British example was developed on a more comprehensive basis in the United States. In 1974, the US Department of Transportation commissioned the American Institute of Graphic Arts to create a set of pictograms to be used throughout public transport networks whether road, rail, air or sea.
  4. ^ Han, Zhigang; et al. (25 September 2009). "A HIV-1 heterosexual transmission chain in Guangzhou, China: a molecular epidemiological study". Virology Journal. 6 (148). BioMed Central: Figure 1. doi:10.1186/1743-422X-6-148. PMC 2761389. PMID 19778458. (Mars male gender symbol) indicates male; (female Venus gender symbol) indicates female
  5. ^ Alice Domurat Dreger (1998) Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex
  6. ^ "Kin Diagrams". www.umanitoba.ca. Retrieved 2019-12-02.
  7. ^ "Kin Diagrams". www.umanitoba.ca. Retrieved 2019-12-02.
  8. ^ Schott, G D (24 Dec 2005). "Sex symbols ancient and modern: their origins and iconography on the pedigree". BMJ. 331 (7531). British Medical Journal: 1509–1510. doi:10.1136/bmj.331.7531.1509. PMC 1322246. PMID 16373733.
  9. ^ Morgan, Lewis Henry (1870). Systems of consanguinity and affinity of the human family. University of California Libraries. [Washington, Smithsonian Institution.
  10. ^ Wilson, Ara (2018-07-24). "Visual Kinship". History of Anthropology Review. Retrieved 2019-12-02.
  11. ^ Glancey, Jonathan (11 September 2014). "The genius behind stick figure toilet signs". BBC. Classics of design: One of the best early examples of intuitive global signs for public lavatories was that created for British Rail in the mid-1960s. As part of a major modernisation programme, the state railway was given a new and all-embracing corporate identity by DRU [Design Research Unit], a design studio founded by Marcus Brumwell and Misha Black in 1943. Working with Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir, who designed a distinctive Rail Alphabet typeface based on Helvetica, DRU devised a clean-cut and convincingly modern aesthetic that was applied to all locomotives, trains, stations, published material and, yes, signs for lavatories. (includes picture of the ideogram, which is copyright).
  12. ^ Eric Sloane (1972, 2007) The Little Red Schoolhouse: A Sketchbook of Early American Education. Doubleday & Co.; Dover Books.
  13. ^ Summers, Josh (2020-11-19). "Chinese Toilet | What to Expect (including Squat Toilets)". Travel China Cheaper. Retrieved 2023-06-02.
  14. ^ Schwartz, M. (2018). Inclusive Restroom Design. Library Journal, 143(8), 28–31.
  15. ^ Dobson, Terry (Winter 2017). "Tip of the Icon: Examining Socially Symbolic Indexical Signage". Dialectic. I (1). doi:10.3998/dialectic.14932326.0001.106. ISSN 2572-7001.
  16. ^ "Symbolism". LGBTQA+ WebCenter. Eastern Illinois University. Archived from the original on 12 February 2016. Retrieved 31 December 2015. Since the 1970s, gays have used double interlocking male symbols to represent gay men. Double interlocking female symbols are often been used [sic] to symbolize lesbianism, but some feminists have instead used the double female symbols to represent sisterhood among women and three interlocking female symbols to denote lesbianism.
  17. ^ a b c d McElroy, D.R. (2020). Signs & Symbols of the World: Over 1,001 Visual Signs Explained. London, United Kingdom: The Quarto Group. ISBN 9781577151869.
  18. ^ "Transgender Symbol". GenderTalk. July 1994.
  19. ^ "History of Transgender Symbolism". International Transgender Historical Society (ITHS). 2015. Archived from the original on 2021-06-01. Retrieved 2018-11-13.
  20. ^ Eigtved, Martin LeBlanc. "Mercury, hermaphrodite, intersex, gender, sex, gender identity, sexuality icon". Iconfinder.
  21. ^ "Unicode Asexuality Character". Sexual Diversity. 6 November 2022.
  22. ^ "Miscellaneous Symbols | Gender symbols" (PDF). Unicode Consortium. Retrieved 2020-06-28.
  23. ^ "Transport and Map Symbols – Range: 1F680–1F6FF – 1F6B9" (PDF). Unicode Consortium. Retrieved 2020-07-01.

External links[edit]