Word to the W.I.S.E. Podcast Series
March 6, 2023

International Women’s Day 2023: Helping Meet the Needs of Women Through Gender-Responsive Standards

In August 2022, UL Standards & Engagement (ULSE) signed the Declaration for Gender-Responsive Standards and Standards Development from the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), underscoring its commitment to publishing gender-responsive standards and achieving greater gender balance, representation, and inclusion in its standards development process. On International Women's Day, we take a look at how ULSE and other organizations are taking action to meet women's needs through developing gender-responsive standards. 

What are gender-responsive standards? 

Group of diverse people talkingGender-responsive standards address the physical and societal differences that exist between men and women, including body fat percentage, peripheral vision, sensitivity to sound, pain tolerance, hormones, and various strength characteristics such as upper-body strength and grip strength. In season two of our Word to the W.I.S.E. (Women in Science and Engineering) podcast series, we speak with several experts in standards and conformity assessment to explore the role of gender-responsive standards in helping to shape a safer future for all.

In our conversation with Michelle Parkouda, manager of research at the Standards Council of Canada (SCC) and author of the report, When One Size Does Not Protect All: Understanding Why Gender Matters for Standardization, she referenced several examples of the need for gender-responsive standards. Medical face masks, which have become common around the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Parkouda said, are typically based on the measurements of a 20-year-old American male soldier, leaving women and other ethnic groups (particularly those that work in healthcare settings) at a greater risk due to a lack in coverage. Similarly, she said, crash test dummies are also based on male anthropometry – placing women at a higher risk of being injured or killed in a car accident. Parkouda explained further that updating standards to equally address the needs of women and men is critical for building a safer world for all:  

Michelle Parkouda“We looked at the relationship between participation in standards development and the number of people that die as a result of unintentional injuries or accidents across countries. ... We did find that there's a relationship, but it turns out that that relationship depends on your gender," Parkouda said. "And so, for countries that are more involved in standards development, they have less men dying as a result of unintentional injuries. So, standards are helping to protect men. When we look at the results for women, there is no such relationship. So, it means that involvement in standardization is not protecting women as well as it is protecting men. And that's why it matters.” - Michelle Parkouda, Standards Council of Canada (SCC)

The ULSE Gender Action Plan

When our organization committed to the UNECE declaration, we also introduced our Gender Action Plan. Directly aligning to our Modern Standards Program (MSP) and commitment to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), our plan intends to help bring diverse voices to our technical committees (TCs) and reinforce our commitment to the achievement of SDG 5: to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. In our conversation with ULSE Operations Manager Mark Ramlochan and Director of International Standards Sonya Bird, Ramlochan noted that this goal can be seen as a prerequisite to achieving all 17 SDGs:

Mark Ramlochan“While the empowerment of women and girls…constitutes just one of the 17 goals, to me, it's a prerequisite to achieving each and every one of the goals. So, it's appropriate to consider standards through a gendered lens, one that recognizes that systemic misrepresentation and asks, ‘How can the process better support the fight for gender equality?’ So, through our Gender Action Plan, looking at a number of themes, our approach to fulfilling this plan will be on a series of horizons. For horizon one, we will aim to establish a tenable foundation, and those themes that we're looking at right now, they include representation, the technical applicability of standards requirements across genders, and education on gender responsiveness.” - Mark Ramlochan, ULSE

Bird said that these goals are also shared by other standards development organizations (SDOs) that have signed the UNECE declaration, including the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which have collaborated to form a joint strategic advisory group (JSAG) to focus on the development of gender-responsive standards. As a member and group leader in the IEC/ISO JSAG, Bird helped to develop guidance and assessment tools to assist TCs in their development of gender responsive standards: 

Sonya Bird “The guidance indicates that all participants in the standards development process have a role to play in considering questions of gender responsiveness throughout the process. And there are a few basic steps that were defined. First is to assess diversity of thought in the committee. … The second one is to assume that there are implications because of gender differences. … Think about the fact that there are differences, and assume that there are implications because of it, within the standard’s development. And then…consider that there are potential gender implications, accounting for both physical and social aspects of gender. … Probably the most important thing that the JSAG has understood is that we do need this sex-disaggregated data.” - Sonya Bird, ULSE

The future of gender-responsive standards 

According to Veronica Lancaster, vice president of Standards Programs at the Consumer Technology Association and president of the board of directors at Women in Standards, greater participation by women in standards development, especially by young and emerging professionals, will be pivotal to the future of gender-responsive and inclusive standards globally. In our conversation, Lancaster noted that networking, mentorship, and succession planning are all critical to increasing female participation and making standards more universally applicable:

Veronica“Networking and mentoring – those are two of the greatest tools that can be used to boost confidence and support a talented professional, whether they're just starting a career or showing an aptitude for standardization. … That's really what's important – mentoring those that you see have a natural understanding and ability, maintaining your network, and also, I think it's especially important for women to see themselves in the leadership roles that they aspire to hold someday.” - Veronica Lancaster, Consumer Technology Association

Word to the W.I.S.E podcast

Through Word to the W.I.S.E., we aim to have these conversations, build awareness, and explore future strategies to increase women’s participation in the development of both standards and technical regulations. We will also explore examples of international standards that are truly gender responsive.

Remember, you too can have your say. 

Just use the #whystandardsmatter hashtag across social media and submit any questions or feedback on the Word to the W.I.S.E. podcast at ULSE.org/contact. We will try to address questions and comments in future episodes.

We also encourage all female leaders in STEM fields to participate in our standards development process by applying for membership on one of our Technical Committees.

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