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Why women need standards and standards need women

by Catherine Bischofberger

Standards developed by organizations like IEC and ISO assure the safety, reliability and efficiency of products and services. They promote interoperability and facilitate trade by removing barriers. But more women need to be involved because at present standards are largely developed by and for men.

Men are a huge majority in the technical committees of standards organizations and in addition often fail to be aware of the basic differences between men and women when it comes to almost anything: women react differently to medication, have very different morphologies than men’s, age differently, etc…The list could go on. Standards bodies, including the IEC, are beginning to take action, however, in a bid to change the situation.

SCC carried out a global analysis, using data from 106 countries, of the impact of gender on standardization. “Across countries and considering all age groups, we find evidence that the relationship between standardization and unintentional fatalities is indeed gender-specific. Men are benefitting more from the protective effects of standardization,” the report states.

The report cites several examples: personal protective equipment used in hospitals is largely based on male anthropometry, failing to protect women as well, a situation which had an impact on the health of female medical staff during the Covid-19 pandemic. Another case in point is testing processes implemented by automotive manufacturers: typically, crash test dummies are not designed on women’s morphology. One of the results of this oversight is that women are 73% more likely to be seriously injured or die from a car accident than men.

Yet another example is voice-activated devices: many of them are more responsive to male voices than female ones which can also lead to accidents, in self-driving vehicles, for instance. Related to this example is another case in point that has come to light recently: bias in AI algorithms. These are mostly developed by men and are therefore not necessarily suited to women’s needs. Algorithms are only as good as their developers. Machine learning can reproduce sexist and racist bias from the real world. Biases can influence the way a medical sample is collected by not including some members of the intended statistical population, for instance. This could result in building an algorithm used for medical diagnosis, trained only on data from one subset of the population.

According to the report, “the failure of many standards to account for women may boil down to two inter-related factors: the lack of female representation in the development of standards and the lack of gender expertise in standards development.”

“In SCC’s gender strategy we identified three priorities, one of them being the need for sound research on the topic of gender and standardization. When it comes to standardization, we have always known — anecdotally — that the benefits of health and safety standards are not gender neutral, that standards are not doing enough to protect women,” said Chantal Guay, CEO of SCC. “For example, throughout the pandemic we have heard reports of women health care workers being at a higher risk of contracting Covid-19 because of ill-fitting personal protective equipment. Thanks to SCC’s ground-breaking research, we now have concrete evidence to share with the world — to move us forward.”

Being aware of the problem, and giving figures to back it up, is a first step which is essential. But what are the solutions to implement change? One of the ways forward is to get organization to work together to address the issue:

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