How standards shape a gender-responsive technological transformation

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March 20, 2023
Hélène Molinier
Senior Manager for the Action Coalition on Innovation and Technology and Substantive Lead for the 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), UN Women

New technologies are at their most transformative when they work for everyone. Digital technologies shape every aspect of our lives, and the digital future we are building will affect us all – yet the future of digital is not being built with everyone in mind.

Studies show that women are severely under-represented in technological fields: just 17 % of IT specialists in Europe are female and gendered inequalities are even migrating to cutting-edge innovations like the metaverse, where there is already a discernible gender gap. The exclusion of women from the digital world has shaved USD 1 trillion off the GDP of low- and middle-income countries in the last decade. It’s clear that reducing the gender gap in digital technologies is an economic and social imperative.

That’s where UN Women steps in. We are the United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women. We work to champion the rights and needs of women and girls around the world, and are responsible for supporting UN member states to frame laws, policies, programmes and services that benefit women.

To this end, helping to shape the standards that private and public organizations use to design, develop and deploy new technologies is absolutely crucial. That’s why UN Women and ISO are working to improve the gender inclusivity of these standards, thereby delivering the benefits of the digital economy to women and girls around the world.

Technology and inclusion: the time is now

The theme for UN Women’s 2023 Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is “Innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls”. This commission was set up in 1946 to convene key decision-makers and experts globally to promote women’s rights, document the reality of women’s lives throughout the world, and shape global standards on gender equality and the empowerment of women. Now, almost 80 years following its establishment, the world looks radically different – and technology has never been more important to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.

Every year, in preparation for the CSW, we convene experts on the theme from all geographic regions to share their expertise and help us to develop a set of policy recommendations for the Commission and its member states. This year, a key insight from the deliberations is the important role that standards play in the design, development and deployment of technology.

The research prepared by this year’s Expert Group found that standards are integral to the education of students, the generation and testing of hypotheses, the design of products and the drafting of legislation. It also showed that standards based on non-inclusive samples can negatively impact lives. In a world that has predominantly been designed by men, better representation in the creation and roll-out of new technology is a powerful tool.

As an example of how gender distortions can be built into technologies, Londa Schiebinger, the principal author of the primary research prepared for the CSW, uses a really interesting case study on automotive safety. Crash test dummies are modelled on young, medium-sized, able-bodied men – despite the fact that cars are marketed globally to all genders and body types. Automotive engineers, therefore, design cars to be safe for male bodies, and the materials provided to them to carry out their work (the crash test dummies) are not gender-inclusive. As a result, women are 47 % more likely to sustain severe injuries in a car crash compared to men. This example is replicated across industries and sectors; time and again, women are not considered in the standards that inform technological innovation.

Schiebinger and the expert group as a whole are calling for the application of gender-responsive standards with a human-rights-based “inclusion by design” approach. This echoes the recommendations of the Secretary-General António Guterres – outlined in his report on the CSW’s theme – that highlight the need for safeguards and standards to ensure transparency, accountability and oversight in the design and use of digital technologies. The Secretary-General also stresses the urgent need to address the key issues affecting the rights and safety of women and girls in the digital age. Integrating a gender perspective in technology and innovation is a pivotal step in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

How standards promote inclusiveness

There is a pressing need to close the digital gender gap, so that the benefits of the digital economy can be delivered to everyone. For this to be achieved, standards must continue to evolve and reflect the need for women to be involved at every stage of the development process. That’s why the needs and experiences of women must be built into technologies from their inception. More diverse design teams can help to create products and services that are better suited to the needs of a variety of users. Research and data that include women can help designers better understand their needs and experiences. And the use of inclusive language in product documentation, user interfaces and marketing materials can help to create a more inclusive environment.

The digital era is revolutionizing society. It has the potential to create favourable conditions for women to excel in the future of work, access essential digital services, and enhance their involvement in civic and political affairs. But only if the technologies underpinning these fields are built with women at their core.

We can’t achieve gender parity with vague promises, abstraction or theory; we can only achieve it through deliberate action informed by the kind of detailed guidance provided by inclusive standards and with the expertise of organizations like ISO. Their important work in this area ensures that everyone is involved in the standards process so that everyone can benefit from the results. Standards are fundamental to the realization of gender inclusion in technology and innovation, and we look forward to cooperating with ISO in the future.

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