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Scene in Berlin

Lavinia PituMay 30, 2014

Visitors to Berlin could soon see a modern, self-confident woman featured on the city's pedestrian crossing lights. Some politicians argue men and women should be equally represented on the capital's streets.

Ampelmann and Ampelfrau
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Germany has been trying to bridge gender gaps for years, particularly when it comes to career outcomes, salaries and housework. But despite endless debates among policy makers, women still earn less than men, occupy fewer executive positions and are less likely to be promoted than their male colleagues.

And it's getting worse. According to some politicians, the same kind of discrimination is rampant on the streets of Germany's capital. It's high time, they argue, Berlin adopted gender quotas for its pedestrian crossings. Wait, don't get judgmental just yet - I'm not talking about the number of men and women waiting to cross the street. We're not that insane (yet).

I'm talking about a recent motion introduced by Martina Matischok-Yesilcimen, the leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Berlin's Mitte district, calling for traffic lights to display red and green female figures. She argues that Berlin's iconic "Ampelmännchen" - the little street light man who signals when it's safe to cross the road - desperately needs a female partner.

"We don't want to replace Ampelmännchen, we want to complete him," Matischock told "The Local." "It's about equality."

Red and green cult figure

But who is Ampelmännchen? In 1961, traffic psychologist Karl Peglau came up with a new design for East German signal lights, featuring chunky, hat-wearing red and green male figures. The little man has had a successful career ever since, surviving communism to become one of Germany's most famous icons. And after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the German reunification, our Ampelmännchen has lived to see a new era: capitalism.

Scene in Berlin

Ampelmännchen has become something of a cult figure, and in 1996, design company "Ampelmann" started marketing the icon as a souvenir. We now have an Ampelmann restaurant, an Ampelmann café, Ampelmann shops, web-shops and even noodles in the shape of the little traffic light figure.

The merchandise is popular with tourists. I bet you also bought some Ampelmann T-shirts, umbrellas or mouse pads during your visit to Berlin. And in case you missed out, you can always shop online. Ampelmann even has its own Facebook page.

No sexist stereotypes for Ampelfrau

In times when a simple traffic light is undergoing its own emancipation, a serious discussion about gender equality, and the introduction of an "Ampelfrau" (the traffic light woman), is well overdue.

A red high heel with a black men's shoe
Ampelfrau is supposed to wear business attire, rather than a skirt and high heelsImage: Fotolia/Gina Sanders

In her proposal, Matischok-Yesilcimen argued the Ampelfrau should by no means fulfill sexist stereotypes, or be too girly. "We don't want a woman with plaits and a bubble skirt," the politician said. Rather, Ampelfrau should represent the modern, self-confident woman, and be clad in a business outfit, for example with trousers. The proposal is now being discussed by Berlin's district assembly.

Kerstin Drobick, commissioner for gender equality in the Mitte district, suggests that the Ampelmann and Ampelfrau symbols be alternated at Berlin's crossings, just to make doubly sure there's equal representation.

Queens and princesses

Plaits, skirts, high heels - don't you get the feeling everyone is already talking way too much about women and feminine imagery? Has anyone thought that we might, under certain circumstances, offend poor little Ampelmann? What if he prefers to have a male partner on the traffic light? Has anyone given that a thought?

Karl Peglau
Karl Peglau invented the Ampelmännchen in 1961Image: DW

Actually I think all Berliners must be either hardcore feminists or homophobic, since I haven't heard anyone disagree with plans to get Ampelmännchen a female friend. All the people I've spoken to think it's a great initiative. Even Katharina Dreger, chief press officer of the city's tourism portal Visit Berlin, told me the Ampelfrau is "a charming idea." "It won't make Berlin more attractive for tourists," she said, "but it's a funny gag."

As for me (need I mention that I'm a woman?), I can only say that if Europe has got its queen after the Eurovision Song Contest, why shouldn't Berlin have its own little street light princess?