17.10.2022 // General news

Gender-responsive standards

from Lea Leibundgut

Those involved in the development of standards not only represent an industry and the interests of a country, but also bring to the standardization process the perspective of their own gender. In some cases, depending on the make-up of a standardization committee, the requirements of those who are absent may not be taken into account. In the past, technical standardization committees were dominated by men. As a result, the needs of women, in addition to all the sophisticated technical details and consensus-building, have often not been addressed. When it comes to the thread of a screw, gender equality is irrelevant, but when it comes to the weight of cement bags, physical differences matter quite literally. How can it be ensured that the requirements of standards also meet the needs of the world’s female population?

Those who are absent will not be heard
Standards shape our everyday lives by setting uniform requirements for products, services and technologies. In order for standards to make all our lives safer and easier, it is important that they meet the requirements of as many people as possible. Even today, very few women are members of technical standardization committees. This may be due to the fact that women are more likely than men to work part-time and are thus more often the primary caregivers for their children and other family members. However, this is difficult to reconcile with the travel involved in attending meetings of technical standardization committees. In the post-COVID world, most organizations and companies have improved their virtual meeting infrastructure so that less travel is required – an innovation that benefits part-time workers and childcare providers.

Various initiatives to promote gender-responsive standards
The UNECE «Gender-Responsive Standards Initiative» has brought the issue of gender-responsive standards into the focus of the standardization community. It is the goal of this UNECE declaration to make the standardization process and the resulting standards gender-responsive. Since May 2019, the declaration has been signed by ISO, IEC and 80 other standardization organizations, including the SNV. In February 2020, the steering committees of ISO and IEC established the «ISO/IEC Joint Strategic Advisory Group on Gender Responsive Standards» (JSAG). The JSAG’s mandate includes the development of tools for ISO and IEC standardization committees to ensure that standards and their development process are gender-responsive. In addition, the JSAG is responsible for drafting the «ISO Gender Action Plan». The European standardization organizations CEN and CENELEC have also adopted a gender action plan.

Gender-responsive standards – still lacking basic understanding
A joint ISO and IEC survey on gender in 2020 showed that there was little basic understanding and appreciation of gender-responsive standards in the ISO and IEC technical community. The JSAG has recognized that a change of culture is needed within the ISO and IEC community, which will be a long-term endeavour, backed up by continuous guidance, encouragement and support. Specific tools to support and develop gender-responsive standards are particularly important.

Studies on the unequal impact of standards on the sexes
Some standardization organizations have conducted research showing that standards can and do impact women and men differently and sometimes unequally. A recent study by the «Standards Council of Canada» titled «When One Size Does Not Protect All: Why Gender Matters in Standardization» provides evidence of the circumstances in which standardization fails to protect women as effectively as men. If standards are not developed with consideration of the differences between women and men, they can lead to higher injury rates and negative health outcomes for women. Examples include car accidents or workplaces where personal protective equipment is used. Men can also be discriminated against on the basis of gender differences: colour blindness, for example, is much more common in men than in women. If a female-dominated standardization committee were to set colour codes that label hazardous substances by colour only, it would largely be men who are affected by inadequate labelling.

What is a gender-responsive standard?
According to the JSAG definition, a gender-responsive standard is one that reflects an understanding of physical differences and gender roles, and takes into account the needs of women and men equally. For example, an IEC standard on the safety of photovoltaic (PV) systems has considered different body resistance data for women and men when calculating the potential current that could flow through a body.

When standards are based on studies that do not consider women
Standards should be based on the consolidated results of science, technology and experience. Therefore, wherever possible, standardization experts use scientific data as the basis for their standardization work. However, a lot of scientific data contains a «gender data gap» or «gender data bias». In other words, either only male respondents were considered for the studies, the questions were posed from a male perspective or assumptions were made that reflect the reality of men’s lives. This was not done intentionally, but simply because women had been overlooked.

Representation in language
Languages with grammatical gender such as German, French and Italian are familiar with the challenges of representing both genders in language. In Switzerland, a Federal Council resolution from 1993 provides for the promotion of linguistic equality between women and men in the language of legislation and administration. The issue is back on the political and social agenda with the debate around the «gender star».

In the German translations of ISO and CEN standards, the generic masculine form has been used up to now. Standardization organizations in German-speaking countries follow the social debate on gender-responsive language and are also confronted with the question of how to draft a gender-inclusive standard as standardization committees. The question of linguistic inclusion has not yet been resolved conclusively. In addition, a JSAG task force deals with linguistic inclusion in a broader sense.

Design for All
Taking into account human diversity beyond gender is the approach of the «Design for All» concept, which the European standardization organization CEN-CENELEC advocates to promote the development of new standards and the revision of existing ones. This approach aims to maximize the user base of products, goods and services. The corresponding European standard EN 17161 focuses on accessibility, though the gender aspect is not addressed specifically. Given the fact that German and French translations consistently refer to the user (in the generic masculine form) of products, goods and services, the gender aspect may be easily forgotten. Nevertheless, the «Design for All» approach matters. Thus, a tool that has also been considered for use by older men who lose physical strength as a result of the ageing process may also be more suitable for women. If the different sizes of men’s and women’s hands are also taken into account, the tool can be used by a wide range of users.

UNECE advice for standardization experts
At its annual meeting in late November 2022, the UNECE will issue practical advice for standardization committees that will help to improve the gender responsiveness of standards. A preliminary version of these guidelines is already available. Standardization organizations such as ISO, CEN-CENELEC and also the SNV will harmonize their own guides with those of the UNECE.

You are invited to participate!
Would you like to bring a gender-specific perspective to the development of international standards for your specialist topic? We would be happy to help you identify the standards that are relevant to your business sector so that you can introduce a gender-responsive perspective there. As an SNV member, you gain access to the standardization committees of the international standardization organization ISO and the European standardization organization CEN that are relevant to you.

Your contact person for further information:
Lea Leibundgut, , Tel: +41 52 224 54 21

Your contact person for a SNV-Membership:
Birgit Kupferschmid, , Tel: +41 52 224 54 18

to the news overview

Please calculate 6 plus 4.

All your data will be treated as strictly confidential and will only be used for the purposes of answering your query. For details on how your data will be processed, please refer to our Privacy Statement.

Back to top
Languages available