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Breaking the bias through standardization

March 8, 2022

Breaking the bias through standardization

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As a young female engineer, it was not uncommon for me to be asked at job sites whether I was the administrative assistant. You see, I was just “too pretty” to be an engineer. Even disguised as a backhanded compliment, the message was clear: I was not their idea of an engineer, and I did not belong.

I am not the only one who heard this message; unfortunately, too often we listen to it. In the United States, it has been estimated that almost 40% of female engineering graduates leave the profession.1 Nevertheless, I persisted and rose in the ranks. I wish I could say that no one today is surprised by my role as a CEO, but there are still those who do a double take.

Research has shown that women are not considered prototypical leaders. There is a bias that certain roles, particularly leadership roles, are still better suited for men. While one might think it is more common for men to have a bias against women, it turns out that is not the case. A recent study from the United Nations found that 51% of women in Canada hold some form of gender bias, compared to 53% of men. Globally, gender bias is higher, with 86% of women and 90% of men showing at least one clear bias against gender equality.2

We have a lot of work to do to break the bias. And the longer we wait, the more it costs society. According to the latest gender gap report from the World Economic Forum, it will take 268 years to achieve economic gender parity worldwide. That’s 10 generations of women who are to be paid less than men3! Gender inequality affects physical and mental health, safety, employment – all spheres of life.

And it has staggering economic impacts. It is well established that closing the gender gap – such that women’s participation in the economy equals that of men – would add trillions to  global gross domestic product (GDP). In 2015, McKinsey estimated that closing the gender gap would add $28 trillion USD to global GDP in 2020.4 We have so much to gain, yet progress is slow.

In 2020, the Standards Council of Canada published a report, When One Size Does Not Protect All: Understanding Why Gender Matters for Standardization, which found that the relationship between standardization and unintentional fatalities is indeed gender specific. We conducted a cross-country analysis, using data from 106 countries. Our research shows that at a national level, participation in standardization is associated with a decrease in unintentional fatalities – for men. In other words, the more a country is involved in standardization, the fewer men die because of unintentional injuries.5 However, there was no such link for women, which means that being involved in standardization had no effect on unintentional injuries for women. This is further evidence that standardization is failing women.

Another example is that the risk of being injured or killed in a car accident is 73% higher for women.6 This is because crash test dummies are based on male anthropometry. Women are not small men. The assumption that they share men’s anthropometry has led to many preventable accidents. Given that accidents are largely preventable, the evidence that women are not protected as well as men is unacceptable.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further shone a spotlight on the intersection between standards and gender equality. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen the impact when standards are not designed with women in mind. One example is personal protective equipment (PPE). Historically, PPE has been designed for the male shape – think about masks, face shields, goggles, and so on.7

Advancing Equality Through Standards Development

While understanding how standards impact men and women differently is important, it is also essential to understand why standards are not protecting women as well as men. Standards are set by those who participate in their development, and women are still underrepresented in the standards development process. SCC tracks the number of women in Canada who participate on technical committees at the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). Our latest data show that only 24% of mirror committee members are women, even though women make up almost half of Canada’s labour force (48%). The underrepresentation of women in technical committees is reflected in the standards that are developed. While technical committees should strive for gender parity, research indicates that at least 30% representation is necessary to ensure that women’s contributions are not marginalized.8

There’s no question we need to increase the participation of women on technical committees. But this is only one part of the solution. We also need to ensure that the female voice is reflected in the content of the standards— that standards are designed with women in mind regardless of the number of women participating on technical committees. We know standards are not meeting the needs of woman as much as they should. SCC conducted a preliminary mapping of the National Standards of Canada to the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and found that only 2% of our national standards contribute to SDG 5, the UN’s gender equality goal. Canada is a nation that considers itself a leader in gender equality and diversity, and yet only 2% of the National Standards of Canada factor in gender.

I am proud of the work that SCC has done so far. In 2019, SCC became one of the first national standards bodies to publish a five-year strategy to improve gender equality in standards. Since then, we have been striving to foster a standardization system that is inclusive and equal, regardless of gender. We are also leading the development of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s (UNECE) Guidelines on Developing Gender-Responsive Standards, which are currently open for comments. The guidelines address how to improve the representation of women on technical committees, how to ensure that meetings are inclusive to foster the participation of women, and how to ensure that standards are gender responsive, regardless of the number of women participating on the technical committee. The following three steps are concrete actions that committees can take to incorporate gender considerations:

  • Start with the assumption that there are gender differences. To ensure standards are gender-responsive, we should start with the assumption that there are gender differences.
  • Gather evidence. To determine if there are impacts and if the standard needs any potential modification, you need to gather data – specifically, sex-disaggregated data.
  • Take targeted action. Based on the results of the research and assessment, take action to ensure the gender responsiveness of the standard.

In recognition of the need for gender responsive standards, the IEC and ISO have created the Joint Strategic Advisory Group on Gender Responsive Standards, with SCC co-leading the work. The group’s charge is to create tools for technical committees that ensure standards are gender responsive.

Not only is SCC very involved in the work for advancing gender equality in the standardization system, we have also been supporting work to advance diversity and inclusion in organizations across Canada. We recently published, in collaboration with the Ted Rogers School of Management’s Diversity Institute, a Publicly Available Specification for the Canadian Government’s 50-30 Challenge, which seeks to improve parity for women and underrepresented groups on boards and in senior management. We have collaborated with government, post-secondary institutions, and key stakeholders to give organizations a framework and tools to improve gender parity. This work establishes key terms and definitions for measuring diversity and inclusion in the workplace and builds on national and international knowledge and best practices to provide common language for organizations.

Breaking the Bias: Taking Steps

To move forward, we need to break both the known bias and unconscious bias. Gender inequality is a systems issue that requires structural changes within the standardization system. A recent ISO and IEC survey found that 75% of responding technical committees have not considered gender9. And among those that had not considered gender, almost 80% said that gender was not relevant to their sector. A recurring refrain amongst the comments was that technical standards “are not a gender issue.”

Although the actions may not be intentional, the consequences are real. It’s important to mention that the failure to consider the needs of women is not necessarily indicative of dislike or believing that men are superior to women; rather, there is an inherent tendency to see men as prototypical, and this is also true in standards development. Acknowledging this tendency can help us take concrete actions to mitigate this bias and ensure standards work for all.

Standards are a force for good in societies, ensuring that products, services, and processes work as intended. They support economic growth, facilitate trade, and play a role in protecting health and safety. And yet, standards are achieving these outcomes while not fully addressing the needs of half the world’s population. By taking action to ensure that standards are responsive to all, those of us responsible for standards development can magnify the positive impact they can have on society as a whole. I invite you to join SCC’s community of experts who shape standards that impact us all.

This article was originally published on the SES website.


1 St. Fleur, N. 2014. “Many Women Leave Engineering, Blame the Work Culture.” All Tech Considered. Washington, D.C.: National Public Radio.

2 Begeny, C.T., M.K. Ryan, C.A. Moss-Racusin, and G. Ravetz, G. 2020. “In some professions, women have become well represented, yet gender bias persists—Perpetuated by those who think it is not happening.” Science Advances, 6(26).

3 World Economic Forum. 2021. Global Gender Gap Report 2021. Geneva, Switzerland.

4 McKinsey Global Institute. 2015. The Power of Parity: How Advancing Women’s Equality Can Add $12 Trillion to Global Growth. London, U.K.

5 Parkouda, M. 2019. An Ounce of Prevention: Standards as a Tool to Prevent Accidental Fatalities. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Standards Council of Canada

6 Forman, J., G.S. Poplin, C.G. Shaw, T.L. McMurry, K. Schmidt, J. Ash, and C. Sunnevang. 2019. “Automobile Injury Trends in the Contemporary Fleet: Belted Occupants in Frontal Collisions.” Traffic Injury Prevention, 20(6): 607-612.

7 Janson, D.J., B.C. Clift, and V. Dhokia. 2022. “PPE Fit of Healthcare Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Applied Ergonomics, 99.

8 See for example: Joecks, J., K. Pull, and K. Vetter. 2013. “Gender Diversity in the Boardroom and Firm Performance: What Exactly Constitutes a Critical Mass?” Journal of Business Ethics, 118(1): 61-72.

9 Nebra, Noelia Garcia. 2021. “ISO Raises the Standard on Gender Equality.” Geneva, Switzerland: International Standards Organization