Use of gendered colours in visualization: a guideline or a personal principle?

I find that a lot of visualisations use blue to indicate men and pink (or reddish) to indicate women. One example is this well-known visualisation by Hanah Anderson and Matt Daniels on the percentage of female and male dialogue in disney movies, often listed as one of the best examples of good visualisations. There are obvious advantages of using gendered colours such as making the graphics “cleaner” or no need for a legend since most readers are likely to understand the meaning of these colours. However, they refer to gender stereotypes which we know to be wrong and harmful.

Question: Is presenting information in a clear and understandable way the primary goal of chart designers and a more important one than abandoning stereotypes? Some creators argue that the context is crucial (for example creating graphics about unemployment statistics may reinforce stereotypes versus using pink/blue for more “innocent” purposes such as baby names), but does using gendered colours not always endorse the stereotype whatever the purpose? And considering the importance of gender equality, should renouncing the use of gendered colours be considered a visualisation guideline, not just a personal principle for those who choose to adopt it?
Thank you in advance for your opinions.


First, thank you for posting this question. I was unaware of gendered colors in data visualization before I read your post. I think you highlight important aspects when it comes to choosing color schemes in data visualization. There is a tradeoff between clarity and gender-free color schemes since those stereotypes exist in our society. While a clear and intuitive visualization is one of the top priorities for chart designers, I personally think that creating gender neutral/unpolarizing content is even more important. The use of pink and blue to illustrate data on women and men respectively is unnecessarily reinforcing gendered stereotypes. However, this tradeoff does not have to persist. Large news organizations have started using different colors when visualizing gender specific data such as data on wage inequality (An alternative to pink & blue: Colors for gender data). Some of these organizations used colors that were completely different from blue and pink such as orange and green. Others simply used pink for male and blue for female. This, however, might lead to misinterpretation of the data. Therefore, I would suggest you use completely different colors for your visualization. Regarding guidelines on colors associated with gender, multiple articles (such as A few color options for representing gender — Data Viz Today) refer to green and dark purple (#1b909a, #7900f1). They are the colors of the “Votes for women” campaign in the U.K. The colors of a female rights movement are very well suited in my opinion, as the movement emphisizes and advocates equality rather than highlighting differences between genders and I also think they are less polarizing while maintaining an intuitive interpretation for gender data. Adapting such a guideline would increase understandability and clarity of data visualization while not advocating gender roles.

To answer your second question, “should renouncing the use of gendered colours be considered a visualisation guideline, not just a personal principle for those who choose to adopt it?”, I think we should renounce the use of gendered colors in visualization guidelines. Yeung & Wong wrote an interesting paper on the impact of gender labels and gender-neutral colors on performance. They found that “having any gender labels could widen the gender gap in play performance” (Yeung & Wong, 2018).

A last point I would like to address is that I personally think the guidelines on colors for gender data visualization should include more than just two colors, as there are many people that cannot identify with the conventional two genders. Providing guidelines for inclusive data visualization might be key to avoid future disagreements.

I hope my answer is of use to you.

As I think this is a very relevant and ongoing topic, I want to contribute my opinion on this.
In your first question you talk about the primary goal of visualizing data. One of the main goals of a visualization of course is to present information using graphical elements which is a widely used practice in modern science. In this context of course, the motivation could be to falsify or verify a predefined hypothesis and not to achieve a change in society by abandoning stereotypes.

In my opinion though, a content creator can always think of ways to consider social problems and counteract them – especially in the scientific sector.
If stereotypes are defined by social values, they can only change if these social values get changed. (McGarty et al. - Stereotypes as Explanations)

And if we want this to happen for gender stereotypes we must start somewhere. So, to prevent the well-known effects of gender stereotypes, not using these color schemes could be a great step into the right direction and then it is also not really a matter of context.

As a follow up question I came up with another thought: What happens if we use different colors? Will they just replace pink and blue and get associated with the same stereotypes after a while?

Thank you very much for your interesting and important question.

That is a very interesting point you are making @db78. I asked myself that same question. You quote McGarty et. al. and I agree that social values must change for stereotypes to change. However, I do think stereotypes have been changing and that we associate pink with femininity but also attributes such as lack of will power or overly emotional nature is outdated. Choosing these new colors that are associated with a strong female movement, might help that they would not be associated with the same stereotypes as pink and blue are. This could be wishful thinking on my part but I think that even if our conception of those colors would change if they were to be used to represent genders, the stereotypes would be far less pronounced as society has come a long way when it comes to gender inequality.

Your question can be viewed in several ways, depending on the context. Of course, the main purpose of data visualization is to make it easy and understandable for the reader - if that were not the case, we could just provide raw data. To answer your question specifically - it depends on the situation and what you would like to show. In your example about the Disney actors men are clearly opposed to women and, although the use of “traditional” gender colors may not always be perceived correctly, but in this situation it is primarily about drawing attention to gender issues and in this context, I personally would consider the use of contrasting colors - but which ones, it depends on the situation. As an example when gender colors do not matter, any infographics that do not focus on gender, such as any data on the voting in certain countries, where the population groups are indicated - they focus on the contrasting things - usually, parties and men/women are simply 2 separate graphics without separation by color, because it is not important, not necessary and does not carry any semantic load.
To summarize, I would say that with any use of color in data visualization you have to be extremely careful and cautious, and this is the reason why men and women are often (but not always) represented by the traditional blue and red colors - because in the context of this question you need to highlight the difference as much as possible and to make it easy to pay attention to and understand the context of the question.