There was a costume change at one of Melbourne’s busiest intersections yesterday, just in time for International Women’s Day today. The traditional (and assumedly) male figure in the lights at the pedestrian crossing at the Swanston and Flinders Street intersection was replaced with the silhouette of a person in a dress.

The changes were made as part of the Equal Crossing initiative, a project of the Committee for Melbourne, which is a not-for-profit organisation. It wants to install an equal number of “male” and “female” pedestrian signals throughout Victoria.

The idea came about to promote gender equality in practical and visible ways.

“It’s designed to reduce unconscious bias and to stimulate discussion, which it certainly has done,” says Martine Letts, the CEO of Committee for Melbourne. “We’re not the only city in the world doing this. A number of European cities in Germany, Finland and Spain … have similar ideas, and Sweden has 50 per cent female pedestrian-crossing figures.

For now, 12 pedestrian lights have been changed in the CBD.

“We’re not proposing to move to 50 per cent straight away … this will be too costly and there is a small legislative change that needs to go through to the Road Safety Act,” says Letts.

“It will cost $8400 to replace a basic intersection of six lights and $15,200 to replace 12 lights,” she says. The trial has been funded by Camlex Electrical and has not used taxpayers’ money.

"There are many small – but symbolically significant – ways that women are excluded from public space," said Minister for Women Fiona Richardson, who supports the introduction of the new lights.

There was criticism of the initiative on social media (for being overly politically correct and not helping to reduce inequality in any meaningful way and for perpetuating gender stereotypes).

But Letts points to endorsements from senior female leaders including Victoria Governor Linda Dessau, the chair of the Women’s Leadership Institute Australia, Carol Schwartz, as well as Richardson.

Lord mayor Robert Doyle told the Herald Sun: “I’m all for doing anything we can for gender equity, but really? Unfortunately, I think this sort of costly exercise is more likely to bring derision.”

Brendan Pauwels, the director of metro projects central for VicRoads, told the Herald Sun he had been influenced to support the project when his eight-year-old daughter asked him why “all the crossing symbols were men”.

But as Melburnian Sara Phillips said on Twitter: “Who says it's a little green man? Maybe it was a little green woman wearing trousers all this time.”