ISO raises the standard on gender equality

In a world designed by men, ISO has taken a big step towards gender equality and is making progress on SDG 5 with its far-reaching Gender Action Plan.

Few minutes to read
Noelia  Garcia Nebra
By Noelia Garcia Nebra
Programme Manager
Published on

Have you ever wondered why a standard-size bag of cement is comfortable for a man to lift but not so easy for a woman? Or why a brick fits snugly in a man’s hand but a woman may struggle to get her hand around it? The answer of course is because we live in a man’s world. That’s a fact that should come as no surprise to anyone. It is evident in every aspect of our lives – from bricks and mortar to our financial and political systems.

Improving gender equality would lead to an increase in EU GDP per capita of EUR 1.95-3.15 trillion.

The need for more tangible action on gender equality has never been more timely. In 2019, the SDG Gender Index revealed that, overall, no country was on track to achieve gender equality by 2030. Two years on and, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021, an extra 36 years have been added to the time remaining to close the gender gap, pushing back gender parity by a generation.

The World Trade Organization, in its WTO Public Forum 2021, reinforces the bleak outlook. It cites ILO figures showing global employment losses at 114 million jobs relative to 2019, with the highest number of losses affecting women (a 5 % decline). Despite standout moments, such as Chile’s new constitution, the first to be written by an equal number of men and women, women continue to face huge challenges.

Growing economies

Gender equality is essential for sustainable and inclusive development and it is no surprise that it has its own Sustainable Development Goal, SDG 5, of the United Nations’ 17 SDGs. It states: “Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.” Yet, as UN Women has pointed out, from politics to entertainment to the workplace, women and girls around the world are largely underrepresented.

Female political deputy makes a speech at conference.

Not only is gender equality a basic human right but the economic benefits of improving gender parity are clear and obvious. The figures speak for themselves. The European Institute of Gender Equality (EIGE), for instance, says that, by 2050, improving gender equality would lead to an increase in EU GDP per capita of 6.1 % to 9.6 %, which amounts to EUR 1.95-EUR 3.15 trillion. Improvements in gender equality would also lead to an additional 10.5 million jobs in 2050, which would benefit both women and men.

Addressing gender matters would boost global economic growth by more than 4 %. The significance of this was underscored by the 2015 International Gender Champions initiative. This network of leaders from over 60 countries – which includes Sergio Mujica, Secretary-General of ISO – brings together both women and men decision-makers who are committed to making gender equality a working reality in their sectors or spheres of influence.

A new strategy

Progress has been slow but the pandemic has added a new urgency. Like many other organizations, ISO has responded to this challenge and is shining the gender torch on all its operations with a strategic organizational push, the Gender Action Plan, to advance the agenda on gender equality. As standards touch almost every aspect of our lives, at ISO we recognize that our organization and members have a critical role to play in advancing gender equality. Standards facilitate trade, reduce costs and support innovation, but in order to make them effective in responding to current and future challenges, gender must become an integral part of standardization not least for safety reasons.

As Mujica says: “We, at ISO, recognize that International Standards are essential tools toward reducing inequalities, creating greater sustainability and encouraging inclusive economic growth, all of which largely contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including SDG 5 on gender equality.”

Gender bias can have a serious impact on women’s health. A report in Fierce Healthcare underscores how it can create dangers in medical treatment, from cardiovascular disease to mental health and pain management. Products tested and designed by men lead to more workplace accidents and higher health risks to women in the workforce. In the UK, for example, a report by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) established that ill-fitting personal protective equipment for women was worst in the emergency services, with body armour, stab vests, high-visibility safety vests and jackets all highlighted as unsuitable.

Two female mechanics examine an open jet engine in an aircraft hangar.

Work in progress

79 %

of the committees that didn’t consider gender believed it was not relevant to their sector

Achieving gender parity has been high on our agenda for some time. In 2019, ISO, with many of its members, showed its commitment to further action on gender equality by signing the UNECE’s Declaration on Gender Responsive Standards. With its system-wide Gender Action Plan, which sets out initiatives and establishes ambitious goals towards supporting gender equality in standardization, ISO is now one of the foremost organizations actively tackling this issue.

We realize there are no short, sharp fixes to this issue and the new strategic plan will evolve over time to achieve the best outcomes. The first phase (2019-2021) has been about taking stock; the second phase (2021-2023) will tackle the issues. And as the plan is considered a living document, actions will be monitored and updated regularly, keeping the focus on future aspirations. Mujica says: “ISO is making all of these efforts as a continual process and is committed to continually improving.”

Part of this ongoing process was a landmark, first-of-its-kind industry questionnaire aimed at gaining insights into how ISO technical committees were addressing the development of gender-responsive standards. As mentioned above, it is generally accepted that standards are largely made by men for men and that women are under-represented in technical committees. The results of the survey, the product of ISO-IEC[1] partnership, under the stewardship of the Joint Strategic Advisory Group (JSAG), were sobering. Perspectives gathered from 356 respondents indicated a lack of gender responsiveness in standards development and showed that a lot of work still needs to be done for standards to fully address the gender issue.

Most disappointingly, for committees that have not considered gender, 79 % believed it was not relevant to their sector. Respondents also noted that 50 % of committee members had not raised the topic. And in the comments received, a recurring viewpoint was that technical standards “are not a gender issue”.

Moreover, in an ISO survey on gender representation, one significant finding was that although, in technical work, the numbers are not too bad, particularly at the committee management level, that does not always translate into gender-responsive standards. Having balanced representation is important in terms of having equal opportunities and giving space to different voices, but standards will not necessarily include a gender lens.

Gender equality is essential for sustainable and inclusive development.

The next steps 

The biggest challenges, however, can also bring big opportunities. The survey results reinforced the need to raise awareness of the importance of gender in standardization, and ISO and IEC will continue to collect data on gender representation to better understand the scale of the challenges. Disseminating knowledge and sharing best practice among our global members is vital and, to facilitate this, another key component of the Gender Action Plan, the Gender Focal Point Network, was launched.

Earlier this year, ISO hosted the first meeting of this new platform to involve its members in the implementation of the Gender Action Plan and to ensure that standards respond to the needs of both men and women equally. Through his participation in the International Gender Champions initiative, Mujica has promised to advance the contribution women are making in the world of standardization, whether in ISO technical committees, through ISO members, or at the ISO Central Secretariat.

Kylie Schumacher, Manager of technical committee ISO/TC 272, Forensic sciences, said: “I am extremely proud to be involved in a community that champions diversity and equality, and I look forward to working alongside even more young professional women in the standardization space in the years to come.” However, although it is acknowledged that women are increasingly excelling in many areas of science, their full potential is yet to be reached.

We know there is much more to do but our new initiatives are helping us to build gender equality into our very core, and the goal of inclusion and diversity is now an integral part of ISO’s strategy, approved by its members.

Collaboration, communication and commitment are all vital components of ISO’s mission to provide solutions to global challenges. The pandemic has taught us many lessons, perhaps one of the most important being that, if we work together, we can achieve a lot. “Gender equality is a priority for ISO,” says Mujica. “We are deeply committed to increasing women’s participation in standardization and mainstreaming gender into the standards development process. But ISO cannot do this without the cooperation and determination of our partners and members and experts.”

So the next time you see a pregnant woman struggling to fit the car seatbelt over her baby “bump”, there might be some comfort in knowing that, for her children at least, no matter their gender, the standards that shape their world will have been designed more equitably, holding the promise of a safer, more inclusive and sustainable future for everyone.

  1. The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) develops International Standards for all fields of electrotechnology.

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