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Interview
Gender Equality and Standards: Q&A with Michelle Parkouda

March 8, 2021

Gender Equality and Standards: Q&A with Michelle Parkouda

Michelle Parkouda, PhD is Manager, Research at SCC

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Interview
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Q.

What is the link between standards and gender equality?

A.

Standards specify how to do, test, or identify something. They have been referred to as invisible infrastructure, and while they are pervasive (impacting the products, processes, and services we use daily), it is increasingly recognized that in their current form they are perpetuating gender inequality.  In the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s (UNECE) Declaration for Gender Responsive Standards and Standards Development it was acknowledged that women are under-represented in standards development and this has consequences. Specifically, by failing to account for the differential needs of men and women, women are not able to benefit as fully from standardization.  Developing gender responsive standards will enable women to reap the benefits that standardization can provide, including improved health and safety, and the ability to more effectively utilize products, processes and services that are tailored to their specific needs.

 

Q.

The theme of International Women’s Day 2021 is #ChooseToChallenge. What is SCC doing to challenge gender bias and inequality?

A.

SCC has signed the UNECE declaration and we were one of the first national standards bodies to develop and publicly release their gender strategy.  It was very important to SCC that signing the declaration was backed up by concrete action.  In fact, because of the action SCC has taken we are increasingly seen as a leader on this issue in the field of standardization.  The magnitude of challenge and the importance of this work has led SCC to take concerted action internally, nationally, and internationally.  Internally, a corporate objective is to increase the representation of Canadian women in technical committees.  Nationally, we are leveraging the standardization system to reduce gender bias and inequality through the government of Canada’s 50-30 Challenge.  And internationally we are leading work at ISO/IEC and the UNECE to develop guidance on how to ensure gender responsive standards development.

 

Q.

SCC’s research report When One Size Does Not Protect All: Understanding Why Gender Matters for Standardization is gaining a lot of attention. Why was the research phase so important?

 

A.

I’m a researcher.  I want to see the facts, the data.  Often there is rhetoric that doesn’t match reality once we dig a little deeper and so it’s very important to ensure that when we say ‘standards are not gender responsive’ that we really examine that.  That we understand the ways in which standards are not responsive, the antecedents and the consequences.

Through our research we’ve measured the participation rates of men and women in our ISO/IEC mirror committees.  We’ve seen the degree to which women are under-represented.  We’ve done preliminary work to identify which National Standards of Canada contribute to SDG 5 – the UN’s gender equality goal –– and found it’s not a lot.  And now we have done a cross-country study showing the relationship between standardization and unintentional fatalities.  Our research supports anecdotal evidence and sector specific research showing that standardization is protective for men but not women.

By gathering data, we can track progress.  And by measuring the impact we can begin to quantify the magnitude of the problem.  While anecdotes and case studies can be more readily dismissed, our research, combined with other research, makes a compelling case that is much more difficult to dismiss.  And we have seen that other national standards bodies have used our research to support their gender initiatives.  Clearly, this has helped to fill a need and a void.

 

Q.

What do you see as next steps? Exciting projects on the horizon?

A.

We need to follow through and we need to continue to challenge gender bias and inequality.  Globally it has been estimated that it will take countries on average 200 years to achieve gender equality.  COVID-19 has set gender equality back even further; McKinsey estimated that COVID job losses are 1.8 times higher for women than men.  How lasting the set-back from COVID will be remains to be seen.  Standards can be part of the solution, but for that to happen this work cannot be a flash in the pan, it cannot be contingent on the current leadership or staff at SCC.  It needs to be, to borrow an overly used phrase, “the new normal” in perpetuity.   It needs to be embedded in the systems and culture.

We will continue to collect data and to do research to shed a light on how standards can combat gender bias and inequality as well as the impact.  We will also leverage standardization tools to advance change more broadly for Canada.  SCC is pleased to be working with the government of Canada on the 50-30 Challenge to increase equality and diversity in Canadian organizations.  Research has consistently shown that equality benefits everyone and we look forward to advancing equality and well-being for everyone through gender responsive standardization.

 

Q.

What are you most proud of when it comes to your work at SCC?

A.

In my role as the Manager, Research at SCC I am responsible for overseeing research to demonstrate the economic and social value of standardization.  Historically, emphasis for standardization research has been on demonstrating economic value. This is important and there is still work to be done in that area.  As a social psychologist, the social impact is also very important to me.  It is exciting to see the momentum and opportunities for standardization to tackle challenging social issues.  And for me personally, contributing to this work, in any small way, gives me an immense sense of satisfaction.

 

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