Safety standards: how to include women?

The news that the first all-woman spacewalk was cancelled in March 2019 because NASA did not plan spacesuits adapted to the women astronauts’ morphology highlighted an issue that has rarely hit the front pages. The world we all live in is based on standards largely developed by and for men.

Two male test crash dummies (photo:

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.

Key report highlights the problem

The Standards Council of Canada (SCC) has issued a very detailed report on how standards affect gender, particularly when it comes to safety issues. According to the report, When one size does not protect all: understanding why gender matters for standardization, standards often fail to protect women as well as men, leading to unintentional fatalities.

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.”

The SCC tracked down the numbers of women in the Canadian IEC and ISO mirror committees, comparing them to the overall labour force. While women represent 50% of the Canadian labour force, they only represent around 20% of the ISO mirror committee members and 10% of the IEC ones.

“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.”

Call for action

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:

In May 14 2019, international organizations, national standards bodies and international standards development bodies joined the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Declaration for Gender Responsive Standards and Standards Development. Signatories committed to, among other things, “acknowledge  that representation of women in standards development is almost always below parity and that the outcomes for men and women are not explicitly addressed during the standards development process.” They also committed to take action to ensure that standards are gender responsive.

At its own level, IEC decided several years ago to no longer use the word Chairman for the heads of technical committees, opting for the more neutral Chair instead. It established an ad-hoc group on diversity issues and published a diversity statement in June 2020 which agrees to:

  • help raise awareness on the value of gender diversity with its National Committees and stakeholders, including partner standards development organizations and conformity assessment bodies;
  • acknowledge that representation of women in standards development and conformity assessment needs improvement;
  • recognize that requirements for men and women may not explicitly be addressed during the standards development or conformity assessment processes and work towards gender diversity at all organizational levels;
  • commit to create, implement and track progress of a gender action plan for IEC.

Being more inclusive is already leading to a new approach for standardization. Algorithm bias, for instance, is an area where the IEC is focusing a lot of attention. As François Coallier, who heads one of the joint subcommittees formed between the IEC and ISO to deal specifically with the IoT, says: “If you feed a learning system data that is corrupt you will not have a good result no matter how powerful the algorithms are. But that is where performance standards can help, by enabling users to monitor the quality of the data, for instance.” IEC therefore has a role to play to ensure that the data correctly represents females, for instance.

The IEC Young Professionals programme is relatively diverse and is focusing on recruiting even more young women to join its ranks, aware that these are the experts that will head tomorrow’s TCs.

The road ahead is still long and there is still a dearth of women in most IEC TCs. Some show the way ahead however: IEC TC 111 is close to reaching 50% female membership. IEC TC 100, one of the busiest IEC TCs, is headed by a woman, Ulrike Haltrich. While these examples remain isolated instances for the time being, they show that change is afoot.