UN Commission Calls for Gender Responsive Standards

22 November 2018

Standards bodies have an important role to play in achieving gender equality, according to a recommendation adopted by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) on 15 November. The recommendation, which builds on two years of consideration on how standards bodies could contribute to Agenda 2030 on Sustainable Development, was adopted by the UNECE Working Party on Regulatory Cooperation and Standardization Policies (WP6) at its 28th session in Geneva, Switzerland. 

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 within Agenda 2030 is dedicated to “achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls,” with targets dedicated to ending discrimination and that ensuring women have equal opportunities in economic, political, and public decision-making, as well as the same rights to economic resources as men.

The recommendation adopted last week calls on UNECE member states to consult with their national standardisation bodies and encourage them to sign the “Declaration for Gender Responsive Standards and Standards Development” included in the recommendation. 

There are 56 member states of UNECE, spanning beyond Europe to also include North America and Asia. All UN member states have the option of taking part in any regional commission’s work, however. Including UNECE, the United Nations has five regional commissions, with the others devoted to Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Western Asia. 

Opportunities for women’s empowerment

The declaration notes that despite the pervasiveness of standards in society and trade, the representation of women in standards development is almost always below parity. It also says that the gender-differentiated outcomes of standards are rarely considered during the standards development process. 

In light of these findings, private standards organisations, such as the British Standards Institute or the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), could choose to sign up to the declaration. By doing so, they would recognise that the content of standards and engaging in the standards development process are opportunities for women’s empowerment, and commit to working towards gender inclusive standards development organisations and gender responsive standards. 

Such processes have, for example, revised standards for seat belts to ensure they take into account women’s body shape and thus protect their safety. In another case, standards organisations have used technical assistance for standards implementation that are more women-friendly: train the trainers programmes, for example, build on women’s assets and minimise time, travel, and inter-gender dynamics that could otherwise block their access to information. To promote such gender-responsive standardisation, the declaration encourages standard bodies to develop a gender action plan and gather of data to track its effectiveness. 

Interventions at the UNECE meeting largely supported the initiative, noting how it could help ensure that standards and trade support gender equality. Some questioned the relevance of gender to standard-setting bodies, however, arguing that these agencies should focus only on technical matters and expressing concern that gender-related analysis could inhibit that focus. 

In its decision adopting the initiative, WP6 asked for resources for capacity-building projects to assist member states in its implementation. This could include, for example, the establishment of a roster of gender and standards experts who could be included in the standards development process and the development of a tool to assess which standards are most in need of a gender perspective. Next steps include the formal opening of the Declaration for signature: at press time, several standards bodies had already indicated their interest. 

ICTSD reporting.

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