The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) is committed to helping raise awareness among its members and stakeholders of the value of gender diversity. The organization seeks to meet the objectives of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations–including SDG 5, which is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls—throughout its work.

In 2019, the IEC Board established a task force on diversity to assess the current situation, including gender in governance and IEC activities, and make recommendations for improvement. One of key outputs of the task force is the IEC diversity statement, which speaks about the need for diversity in the IEC.

The statement acknowledges that the 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. It also recognizes that the content of standards and engaging in the standards development process are opportunities for women's empowerment. In the statement, the organization agreed to create and proactively implement a gender action plan as well as track progress by collecting and sharing data, success stories and good practices.

Sharing success stories was at the heart of the #WomenatIEC campaign, which was launched on 11 February 2021, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Women from the IEC community were asked to produce a video of themselves explaining their work and highlighting the contribution of women to the IEC. At least 50 videos from around the world were shared during the month of March, coinciding with International Women's Day on March 8. The videos were disseminated on all major IEC social media platforms and generated huge interest.

A special area on the IEC website has been specifically dedicated to the issue of women in standardization. A session on the role of gender in standards work was organized at the IEC General Meeting in Dubai in October; a year later, on 8 March 2022, a webinar titled “Building on the Momentum of #WomenatIEC” took place, featuring some of the women who took part in the campaign.

In recognition of the need for gender-responsive standards, the IEC and the International Standards Organization (ISO) created a Joint Strategic Advisory Group (JSAG), which was mandated to produce tools for technical committees that ensure standards are gender-responsive. A report has been published with recommendations, some of which are immediately applicable.

Sonya Bird, past President of SES, was an active member of the JSAG and is the director of international standards at Underwriters Laboratories, where she is responsible for developing and implementing the company's international standards strategy. In this role, she leads a team of regional managers located around the world, including in the ASEAN region, China, India, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. She is active in American National Standards Institute (ANSI) international forums, in the U.S. National Committee of the IEC, and in IEC itself, where she represents the United States on the IEC Standardization Management Board (SMB).

“Through participating in the JSAG, I've learned that some technical committees have historically been made up of male contributors and did not consider the unique, specific needs of women in standards development,” Sonya says. “The individuals participating in the work of the IEC and ISO are experts in their respective fields but are not necessarily experts on gender differences. The JSAG recognized that guidance is needed to help all experts understand the value of gender-responsive standards, while also encouraging them to think about gender implications for new and revised standards.

“Physical differences between men and women other than sizing dimensions may include body fat percentage, peripheral vision, sensitivity to sound, pain tolerance, hormones, or various strength characteristics such as upper body strength and grip strength,” she says. “Each of these conditions could have an impact on the suitability of requirements contained in a standard. Add to that mixture the traditional differences around roles played by men and women, and the evolving roles of women today, and it is obvious that the needs with respect to standards are changing.”

Inclusion has become one of the IEC strategic pillars, as reflected in a new governance structure that has been streamlined to become more effective and transparent. This includes a new body under the IEC Board called the Diversity Advisory Committee that aims to support the IEC Board and national committees in leveraging the power of diversity and inclusion at the level of IEC governance.

The Standards Council of Canada (SCC), which hosts the IEC national committee, has been implementing changes related to gender diversity and is one of the models for other organizations to follow. In 2020, the SCC published a report, When One Size Does Not Protect All: Understanding Why Gender Matters for Standardization, that used data from 106 countries to convey the impact of gender on standardization.

Lynne Gibbens is the IEC manager of international standards development at the SCC. She is also the national secretary of the Canadian National Committee of IEC (CANC/IEC) and a member of the IEC SMB. She explains the actions taken by the SCC.

“To effect positive change, first we needed to understand exactly how standardization impacted women,” she says. “There is a lack of literature on this topic, and this gap is often highlighted as a challenge. So, conducting research became a key goal of the SCC's five-year strategy. I'm proud to say that our research has been vital in building the case for change and has put us in a great position to measure and track progress.

“The SCC has prioritized raising awareness,” she continues. “We leverage speaking engagements with our partners to raise awareness of the value that gender-responsive standards would bring to addressing socioeconomic issues, building back better from the pandemic, and helping industries secure a sustainable talent pool for the future. We ground our advocacy in facts and data that demonstrate how a more gender-equal approach benefits the quality of life for everyone—including men, businesses, national and international economies, and underrepresented groups.”

Nationally, the SCC is supporting the Government of Canada's 50-30 Challenge. This initiative asks organizations to aspire to have 50% gender parity on boards and senior management and 30% representation on boards and senior management of underrepresented groups. The SCC oversaw the development of a publicly available specification to enable organizations to track their progress against the 50-30 Challenge. On an international level, the SCC is leading a working group at the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe to develop guidelines for gender-responsive standards.

While the IEC and its members recognize that much work still must be done to be fully gender diverse, big steps have already been taken. The commitment to implement change is acknowledged throughout the organizations and the #WomenatIEC campaign was successful in making gender diversity an issue which cannot be ignored.

Catherine Bischofberger is a writer and technical communications officer at the IEC. Previously she worked as a journalist and editor on the IBC daily and wrote for many B2B publications. Before coming to Switzerland and joining the IEC, Catherine worked for 15 years in Paris for The Film Français, the French Variety. Prior to that she edited several broadcast technology magazines in London.

Catherine Bischofberger is a writer and technical communications officer at the IEC. Previously she worked as a journalist and editor on the IBC daily and wrote for many B2B publications. Before coming to Switzerland and joining the IEC, Catherine worked for 15 years in Paris for The Film Français, the French Variety. Prior to that she edited several broadcast technology magazines in London.

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