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Tackling unconscious gender bias with a gender action plan

We hear from committee members on their international work leading the conversation on gender awareness in standards development.

Woman in PPE using machinery

Gender awareness ensures standards benefit everyone

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Gender Responsive Standards Initiative is playing a crucial role in the development of standards that meet the United Nations (UN) sustainable development goals, namely SDG5 for gender equality. From a practical viewpoint this is about applying a gender lens across all standards in development and providing accountability through monitoring and reporting. Another challenge is of course building the capacity to improve gender parity on committees.

To tell us more we spoke with Lucy He and Peter Morfee, standards development committee members and members of the Gender Responsive Standards Initiative (GRSI) which sits under the Working Party on Regulatory Cooperation and Standardization Policies (WP6) of the UNECE.

This GRSI group, split into three project teams, provides guidance on how SDG5 can relate to standardisation. Their advice supports the development of an international gender action plan and policies used by UN partners. Their advice is based on the project team’s collection of information from across the world’s national standards bodies, looking at who has gender action plans, what they look like and what information fields they maintain in their databases. Another project team is creating training and guidance materials to support sharing and a consistent approach.

WorkSafe Energy leading the conversation

GRSI project team 1 lead and WorkSafe Energy Safety Technical Officer Lucy, and Peter, WorkSafe’s Principal Technical Advisor for energy safety, high hazards, energy and public safety, have been involved with UNECE WP6 for many years.

This is a global initiative involving international standards bodies, non-government organisations, government agencies and academic and research institutions. Here, the collaboration between a commissioner of standards and Standards New Zealand shows how sharing good practice can help improve the performance of businesses and agencies regardless of sector.

Improving awareness

‘First off I want to clarify that for New Zealand we are using the term gender “awareness”,’ says Lucy. ‘We know that the cultural demographics found within different countries and gender make-up across different industries is not uniform. By seeking to build awareness, as opposed to “equity”, it becomes less about 50/50 and more about making sure those who are decision makers and shaping standards apply that gender lens.

‘Realistically we know we wouldn’t be able to get equal representation in certain industries like on engineering or gas and electricity technical committees. However, we can help those on the committees to recognise unconscious bias and how that can unintentionally lead to discrimination. It’s a journey that starts with this very conversation and being aware of differences when making decisions.’

Recognising a need to be better

The UNECE 2016 report of ‘Gender mainstreaming in standards’ states: ‘There is limited evidence of gender being discussed, and addressed, in standards bodies at both international and national levels.’ The report goes on to further acknowledge the lack of data about gender impacts of standards, the assumption that standards are gender neutral without recognising the differences between male and female standard users, and the dominance of male representation in standard setting.

‘While this sounds damning it’s important that this represents a turning point for the better’, says Peter. ‘Standards can also be a key to changing the characteristics of products and processes and driving change in consumers’ and producers’ behaviours. Putting this conversation into action has the potential to become a transformational force supporting sustainability and development when specifications suit a broader scope of people.’

Evidence of unconscious bias

Lucy explains some of the cases where there has been impacts of gender-blind standards upon women. ‘Earlier standards for vehicle safety including safety belts and crash test dummies were not representative of pregnant women until 2003. Standards for earthmoving equipment were based on presumptive male operator dimensions and not updated until 2007. Medical masks are modelled on the face of a 20-year-old male American soldier. Even air-conditioning standards were based on the resting metabolic rate of a 40-year-old man, whereas there is evidence that demonstrates differences in male and female metabolisms and differences between younger and older people. This can explain why women may feel colder than men in the same room.

‘Removing gender biases in these instances mean less foetal deaths from maternal trauma in vehicle accidents, better opportunities for women in mining and automated field labour, and equal comfort for all office workers. These are just a few examples based on technical specifications for average gender-based heights and weights.

‘We have to remember the international context the standards exist in’, Lucy reminds us. ‘For both the United Nations and applying international standards it’s worth remembering that many small to medium businesses globally are run by women and women make up around 45% of the labour force in more than 80 countries so we have to think outside just New Zealand’s perspective.’

Setting the path to consider broader issues

Peter is quick to point out that while the conversation is focused on binary genders, conversations around non-binary considerations are under way. ‘The Sustainability Development Goals are a bit old when it comes to considerations for broader issues of non-discrimination for rainbow communities and non-binary.

‘Gender is just one issue that addresses one SDG and brings its own complexities, however this is not a standalone issue. There’s more work to do on inclusion of indigenous peoples’ needs within standards too, and this is a complex area. While countries may share a need for indigenous considerations, there is great distinction between those indigenous cultures, for example Aboriginal Australian, New Zealand Māori and Native Americans to name just a few of the indigenous cultures that form 6% of the global population.’

It’s time to set your gender action plan

‘What does success look like?’ muses Peter. ‘Standards New Zealand have signed the Declaration that was put together by the UNECE which shows a commitment. A set of written guidelines will help educate future committees and chairs on unconscious bias. Building networks of gender champions who could act as a gender focal point will help support education and training and provide access to experts with that all-important gender lens.

‘This is a good opportunity for other organisations that work with standards, commissioners and all committee members, to consider your own gender action plan for your organisation. There’s a lot of good information available for free from the UNECE Gender Responsive Standards Initiative webpage.’

Gender Responsive Standards Initiative — UNECE(external link)