The case for gender responsive standards

UL's Sonya Bird on why standards development needs to take more account of gender.

Standards agencies are trying to reduce gender bias in standards. Picture: Pixabay

For most of their history, the standards that underpin how consumer electronics are designed and developed were written by men. The result of this, say experts, is an unconscious bias in standards development that has overlooked the needs of women and other gender groups. Standards agencies are now trying to correct this historical oversight through the development of so-called gender responsive standards (GRS).

Sonya Bird, director of international standards at UL Standards & Engagement and a member of the IEC/ISO joint strategic advisory group on GRS talks to CET&D about the issue.

For anyone who doesn't know, can you explain what are gender responsive standards (GRS)?

Gender-responsive standards are standards which acknowledge the distinct needs of different genders and take concerted action to ensure the efficacy of the standard for all. A gender responsive standard is not a separate standard for different genders, but rather a means of ensuring the impact of the standard is appropriate and provides equal benefit.

Can you tell me how you personally came to be involved with the GRS issue within the IEC?

I was first a member of the IEC Board Task Force addressing diversity, with gender diversity being one of the three types of diversity that was identified as being needed within the IEC. In addition, I became a member of the IEC Board Task Force addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), with SDG (5) being gender equality. My work on both of these groups helped me better understand the importance of diversity within the technical committee as well as the need to take steps to develop standards addressing the needs of women.

Can you explain your role at the IEC in relation to this issue and the role of the IEC/ISO joint strategic advisory group (JSAG) on GRS?

Recognizing that the need for gender responsive standards was not specific to just the IEC, but is a more global standards need, IEC and ISO decided to work together to address the topic of gender responsive standards. As a result, the JSAG was established, and I was pleased to join based on my earlier work on diversity and the UN SDGs.

In 2019, ISO and IEC signed the UNECE Declaration on Gender Responsive Standards and Standards Development, pledging to make the standards they develop and the standards development process they use gender responsive. What progress has been made since that initial declaration?

The UNECE Declaration on Gender Responsive Standards, established in 2016, recognizes that women are not currently as well-served by standards as men. The declaration encourages standards development organizations of all types to create gender responsive standards (GRS) and achieve gender balance in their standards development environments. The Declaration and its implementation aim to provide a practical framework for standards bodies and standards developers seeking to make the standards they develop, and the standards development process they follow, gender responsive. The work of the JSAG is the primary effort to address the need for gender responsive standards. In 2022, ISO/TMB and IEC/SMB approved the JSAG Guidance on Developing Gender Responsive Standards for use by the ISO and IEC technical communities.

The UNECE Declaration recognizes that women are not currently as well-served by standards as men. Can you explain this statement further, maybe with some examples? In what ways in particular are women's needs not taken account of?

Let’s take an example of the usual crash test dummy employed by automobile companies to evaluate their safety standards. Several reports showed that these dummies were made to address an average person. Yet men and women have different body shapes and needs, and a seat belt may sit differently across a woman than a man. It was found that the dummy did not adequately reflect a woman’s body type, especially a pregnant woman, owing to which a seat belt may sit differently across a woman than a man.

One standard which has accounted for gender inclusivity is UL 3741, the Standard for Safety for Photovoltaic (PV) Hazard Control. Intended to help reduce shock hazards for firefighters responding to emergencies in homes with PV systems, this research noted that physical characteristics such as body weight and skin sensitivity could have a direct effect on certain threshold limits for electricity and that women tend to have lower threshold limits than most men. As a result, for the protection of female firefighters, the standard uses DC body resistance data as modified for females, which is roughly two thirds the limits for males.

To ensure standards are gender responsive, it is essential to start with the premise that there are gender differences and that this will inherently have implications for the standard under development. This premise is essential in determining whether a standard functions, performs, and/or differentially impacts women and men.

Why have women been overlooked until now? Is it simply that men have dominated the process of standards development or are there other reasons?

First, let me make it clear that there was never any ill intent by the technical committees developing standards! But there are two key factors that have contributed to the situation where women are overlooked: lack of diversity and lack of sex-disaggregated data.

A committee is only as strong as its members, and many committees have lacked the insights and inputs from women. We all know that there are fewer women who go into STEM fields and even fewer who get engaged in standards development. When a certain group is not represented at the table, their needs may not be as obvious. As noted earlier, greater diversity of women is needed in standards development activities, and we all should encourage young girls to consider STEM fields, and encourage those women within our organizations to get engaged in technical standards development! Seek and encourage women in your organization to get involved in technical work, consider mentoring programs, especially for women, bring a woman to a technical committee meeting, highlight women who have made a difference, establish a women’s network, partner with women in other organizations, promote engagement in women-friendly organizations such as Society of Women Engineers, Women in Standards, and SES.

Lack of sex-disaggregated data, or not having data that is broken down for men and women, can result in conclusions about “average” people. But designing to the needs of the average will not necessarily take into consideration needs of a specific group.

Can you offer an example of a consumer electronics product that has been standardized through a very male-biased lens, and how that product might have been developed differently if a gender responsive approach was used? 

One example of technology that struggled to be effective for women is in the area of voice recognition software. Research has found that some speech recognition software is more accurate with male than female voices. One possible explanation is that women’s voices are underrepresented in the training data used for the software. With voice recognition software being used to reduce distracted driving and for medical dictation, among other things, not all errors are benign. Moreover, the impact of those errors may not be limited to the affected female users but could also affect innocent bystanders.

While many women may be frustrated by the lack of responsiveness of their voice-activated technology while driving, the poor functioning technology could exacerbate the problem it was intended to combat – distracted driving – with potentially disastrous consequences.

One of the UNECE declaration's stated goals is to "elaborate gender indicators and criteria that could be used in standards development.” Can you give any examples of what these indicators and criteria might be?

During our research within the JSAG, we identified a number of differences that exist between women and men that could have a potential impact on the standard. These include physical differences such as sizing, grip strength, upper body strength, hormonal differences, body fat percentage, center of gravity and voice differences, as well as societal differences, including work environments and cultural differences. Technical committees are asked to consider these differences when developing standards.

Sonya Bird
Sonya Bird is working to reduce gender bias in standards. Picture: UL

For an electronics product to be truly gender responsive, could you see a future where there would be multiple versions of the same product catering to the needs of different genders? Or is it more practical to create a single product that would address all gender needs?

I’m not a manufacturer, but I would think that manufacturers would prefer to design a single product that addresses the needs of all users, and not establish different products for different users. I think the most important point is that there should not be a base standard, with exceptions for women. Women are not the exception.

In the IEC's GRS guidance document, it is noted that standards developers need to take note of the physical differences and the socially constructed differences between the genders. Can you tell me more about this? Again, if possible, by illustrating your answer with some examples of electronics products that might be standardized differently if physical and social differences were taken into account?

Physical differences are likely more obvious when it comes to technology. Consider grip strength or palm size needed to hold and manage a heavy tool, or a handset for a gaming system. The social differences may be a little more difficult to visualize. Some of our research showed us the value of looking at social constructs when redoing a public transportation system. Data alone showed number of people traveling on certain train lines, but when considering women versus men it was clear that the majority of women in that city were the ones managing the transport of children to and from school. This meant that women were the ones affected more when there were scheduling issues.

Today there are many claims to alternative gender identities beyond the male/female polarity. How do you address these communities while at the same time staying within the realms of what is realistically possible with standards development?

The IEC SMB and ISO TMB gave guidance early on that the guidance document for gender responsive standards was intended to address the binary definition with physical differences. However, the work of the JSAG is really a first step – it shows that women have traditionally been overlooked, and it raises awareness that there may be other groups who need to specifically be considered.

What happens next for GRS? How do you turn these ideas into reality?

Now that the JSAG has published the guidance document, the next steps include encouraging all technical committees to apply the concepts of that guidance document. Training has been (and will continue to be) taking place. I encourage all people who participate on a technical committee to read the guidance document, go through the online training or participate in a training class, and ultimately consider if there are any differences that need to be taken into account when developing a new standard or modifying an existing standard.

Do you see positive signs in the electronics industry that the issue is being taken seriously?

Yes, from my perspective people are beginning to understand the idea behind a gender responsive standard. I come across technical experts in multiple forums, and am hearing others talk about and support the need for “standards for all”.

A shorter version of this article appeared first in the October issue of Consumer Electronics Test & Development magazine.