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Making trade work for all: The role of gender responsive standards


In the context of the Trade and Gender Recommendation under CETA, and to mark International Women’s Day, Canada and the EU co-hosted, on March 12, 2021 a webinar to take stock of recent developments in regard to gender, trade and standards. The webinar also served as an opportunity to discuss implementation by industry to support women’s participation in the economy and trade.  Standards are important to trade because they inform the development of regulations and technical barriers to trade. The webinar was attended by more than 80 participants from both sides of the Atlantic.

The panel discussion was moderated by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and included speakers from the Standards Council of Canada and its EU counterpart CEN/CENELEC, representatives of Canadian (Electro Federation Canada) and EU (CENTEXBEL) industry, and the International Trade Centre (ITC). Officials from the European Commission Directorate General Trade and Global Affairs Canada provided opening and closing remarks.

Panel Discussion

The speaker from the Standards Council of Canada kicked off the panel by highlighting the importance of gender in standardization, noting that because standards are often applied to inanimate objects, like technologies, there is often a perception that they are gender neutral. However, when inanimate objects are created and shaped by people, they can perpetuate biases. She stated that it is becoming increasingly obvious that the lack of women involved in standardization is exacerbating a gender bias in the standards that are developed, which results in safety and performance issues for women. The Standards Council of Canada is focused on making women’s and men’s concerns and experiences an integral dimension in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes so that women and men benefit equally from standardization and to ensure inequality is not perpetuated in the standardization system. She also highlighted the benefits of gender inclusive standards for international trade – stating that if we can ensure standards are gender-responsive through their performance requirements, then those products and services are proliferated through trade in a way that keeps everyone safe. In other words, standards can be a catalyst for change by forming the building blocks upon which goods and services are traded.

The speaker from the CEN-CENELEC (the European Committee for Standardization and the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization) spoke about the importance and the benefits of inclusiveness, openness and diversity in standardization – which have always been at the heart of CEN and CENELEC system, including in their Strategy 2030. She highlighted the fact that reaching more gender-balance in standard-making processes is key, but that more women in a group does not guarantee gender-responsiveness because being a woman does not make you per se a gender expert. She mentioned that change needs to be driven by the whole community and involve everyone. To ensure this, CEN-CENELEC has undergone recent developments in the area of gender inclusive standards, including through the formation of an Informal Coordination Group on Gender Diversity & Inclusivity, established in 2020, which is open to members interested in the topic with diverse backgrounds bringing different inputs and points of view. This Group: raises awareness about the importance and benefits of more gender diversity in standardization in the European community; shares good practices; discusses the advancement of gender actions in members' organizations; ensures alignment with ISO and IEC and UNECE; etc.

Industry leaders from both Canada and the EU also spoke about the challenges and opportunities for industries to develop and use gender-responsive standards, including in the context of post-pandemic recovery.

The Standards and Technical Regulations Manager at Centexbel, stated that the pandemic has made clear that gender responsive standards are especially important in terms of ensuring a good fit for women who are at the front lines of health care and need well-fitting personal protective equipment such as surgical masks and respiratory protective masks.  She noted the importance to take into account a wider ranges of sizes and body shapes when revising standards in the future because one size does not fit all and in fact can be a safety risk.   Additionally, she stated the need for more gender-balanced participation in the committees developing standards, which Centexbel is working on.

The Vice President of Standards & Regulation at Electro-Federation Canada, stated the importance for organizations to build capacity, strategies, and the culture to achieve better participation of women in industry. In the last five years, he has seen more women rise to the top levels of companies and an increasing number of companies are seeing the value of having more women in leadership. However, women continue to be under-represented at every level and gender responsive standards may help women rise to the top faster if these barriers are removed.

Finally, a representation of the ITC spoke about the launch of the new global International Workshop Agreement (IWA) on definitions of women’s entrepreneurship developed through a global multi-stakeholder process over the past year lead by the ITC, ISO, and the Swedish Institute of Standards. The ISO IWA 34:2021 provides criteria to define ‘women-owned business’, ‘women-led business’, ‘women-led cooperative’ and ‘women-led informal enterprise’. The criteria include a combination of ownership, management and control requirements. These definitions are important to facilitate the international comparability of data, and the implementation of capacity building programmes, access to finance initiatives, preferential government procurement policies, and supplier diversity mandates in the private sector. Thus, this IWA will help spur women’s economic empowerment and participation in trade. For more information, consult the ISO website.

Key take-aways from the webinar:

  1. All standards have gender implications. Standards often overlook the gender-angle because they are usually standards developed from a male perspective. Increasing women’s participation in standards development and integrating a gender lens into standards development will advance gender equality, women’s economic empowerment and potential to participate in and benefit from trade.  
  2. Gender responsive standards benefit all – diversity and inclusivity make for higher quality standards that protect everyone and reach greatest market acceptance.
  3. Standards often pose technical barriers to female exporters because complying with standards is a costly and resource heavy undertaking.
  4. Stakeholders engaged in trade have the potential to ensure that the relevant standards are gender responsive.


Standards can be a catalyst for change but only if we apply a gendered lens to our approach to standardization. Developing and using gender responsive standards needs to be a standard operating procedure. These standards are important to ensure women’s participation in the economy as entrepreneurs/business owners, workers, consumers and producers is not limited by gender bias in standards and barriers to trade for women exporters. As gender responsive standards become more common, the benefits of trade will be more widely shared and are essential in ensuring a sustainable and inclusive economic recovery following the pandemic. Going forward, the trade and gender focal points for Canada and the EU will consider how this event could serve as a model for future work to support applying a gender lens to other committee work under CETA.

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