International standard for gender equality: France takes the lead

Take part in our conference on 25 February, which is part of the French Presidency of theEuropean Union, to exchange views with the key players, representatives of international standardization bodies, public authorities and companies who will produce tomorrow's standard, and to participate in its development.

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International standard for gender equality: France takes the lead

After awareness, it’s time for action! To promote equality between women and men, AFNOR has developed a best practices guide to be deployed in organizations. A first step towards an international standard on this subject which is a priority theme of the French Presidency of the European Union and the subject of a conference held on February 25, 2022. Ministers, organizations and standardization stakeholders were present for the project kick-off.

Equal opportunities, the fight against discrimination, access to education, the place of women in organizations, etc. These are all values upheld by AFNOR and which constitute the starting point for the future ISO standard on gender equality. “France is at the origin of this initiative launched in 2021,” said Olivier Peyrat, AFNOR’s CEO, at the start of the web conference attended by more than 300 people from 42 countries on February 25. “Standardization allows us to establish a common language to help us understand each other better, improve dialogue and support the implementation of best practices and operational tools in all organizations, regardless of their nature, sector of activity or nationality.”

Initiated in 2022, the work should be completed next year, a brisk pace driven by the desire to move forward quickly, drawing on everyone’s experiences and respecting the consensus. “Strict gender equality does not exist today in any country in the world,” emphasized Elisabeth Moreno, Minister Delegate for Gender Equality, Diversity and Equal Opportunities, at the opening of the discussions. “This subject is one of the major goals of the five-year term and is a priority of the French Presidency of the EU. It is our intention to produce a final document that is flexible and easily appropriated by all, with the conviction that it will contribute to the development of a more sustainable economy and a more just society.”

Franck Riester, Minister Delegate for Foreign Trade and Economic Attractiveness, reiterated the importance of the project’s global scope. “Global participation will enable us to develop a representative voluntary standard, in touch with the widest possible range of stakeholders. France is moving this project forward at international level. The initiative is followed by about thirty countries on themes such as culture, communication, social responsibility policy, etc.” Elena Bonetti, Italian Minister for Equal Opportunities and the Family, sees it as “a concrete tool to change the world. Setting a shared standard will encourage global engagement.”

A first AFNOR document, a basis for global reflection

The health crisis has escalated the need for this international dimension. “The situation of women and girls is deteriorating and their vulnerability is increasing,” noted Marie Soulié, Head of the Gender, Education, Population and Youth Unit at the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs. “Standardization work with all relevant bodies will make this a representative and participatory process that will strengthen the equality agenda.” To this end, the work can be based on the AFNOR Spec developed in 2021.

Initiatives around the world

Trade tends not to be gender-neutral. Sweden therefore advocates the design of trade policies that favor women. “For example, it’s about developing gender-responsive procurement processes,” said Amélie Kvarnström, Trade Policy Advisor at the National Board of Trade Sweden. For its part, the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) is focusing on deconstructing stereotypes. “We develop educational material to change these prejudices with the aim of working for the economic autonomy of women, a driver for equality,” stated Madeleine Oka-Balima, Head of the Gender Equality Unit of the OIF.

Drafted in less than 6 months thanks to the involvement of many stakeholders (ministries, local authorities, companies, universities, associations, etc.), this document is a working basis for standardization. “60 experts from 30 organizations took part in the discussions on the different themes,” explained Sophie Schwamberger, Project Manager with AFNOR. “Built around best practices, it constitutes a practical guide applicable in all organizations.” 

According to Mireille Péquignot, President of the association Halte Discriminations: “An approach, a tool and a methodology: AFNOR Spec is very operational. In addition to the societal argument, the economic argument is an important lever demonstrating the benefits of committing to this path. Although women are increasingly present in universities, they are absent from certain fields, with a cost to society estimated in the billions each year. Conversely, 80% of organizations that have taken action on equality have experienced business benefits.”

The next step is to go global. Creation of the French standardization commission is a direct result of the AFNOR Spec. “Our thinking is in line with historical initiatives such as the UN Fourth World Conference and the UN 2030 Agenda,” explained Denis Roth-Fichet, Chair of this ISO/PC 337 committee. “Our focus is on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. We also take into account the national laws passed in many countries.”

Concrete action to push boundaries

For all participants, an international voluntary standard would generate immediate positive and concrete effects. “For a multinational group like ours, having a text that is applicable in all countries, regardless of the level of maturity, is a major benefit, said Tanguy de Belair, Director of Inclusion and Diversity at VINCI. “Such a document will establish a legible, easily appropriated framework to be applied throughout the world. Each local initiative will make sense in relation to global expectations.”

Is this a step forward, while legal restrictions still exist in 104 countries as regards women’s access to work? Certainly, for Fanny Benedetti, Executive Director of UN Women France: “Over-representation of women in the informal economy, wage gaps, the burden of unpaid labor, etc. The task is immense but the standard can strengthen the place of women in the economy. How? For example, by accelerating progress through an in-depth business transformation program. The text will help define the most important areas of work in relation to the situation of all women, such as governance, non-discrimination, health / safety / well-being at work, and so on. Concrete steps in moving forward!” 

One thing is certain for Olivier Peyrat, CEO of AFNOR: the collective work carried out will have a ripple effect on society: “Identifying the problems is the first step in identifying solutions. This is precisely the role of the voluntary standard, which lays down precise definitions, without interpretation or connotation, for the worldwide appropriation of universal best practices. Or how to make life easier and better!” 

When ISO leads by example

Currently, 187 voluntary standards by the International Organization for Standardization contribute directly or indirectly to United Nations SDG 5. And this is just the beginning. “Because the work is also being done from within,” explained Javier Garcia Diaz, Director General of the Spanish Association for Standardization and ISO’s Gender Champion. “As of 2019, we are directly integrating gender into the work of our technical committees. This includes collecting data on the representation of women on our committees, sharing best practices with our 180 members and raising awareness of the subject on an ongoing basis.”

This issue is fully supported in Canada where the feminization of standards is a major subject. “Studies show that in standards relating to PPE (personal protective equipment), one size does not provide sufficient protection,” said Chantal Guay, Executive Director of the SCC (Standards Council of Canada). “Why is this? Because the specifications given in the standard correspond to men’s body morphology, and not women’s! One of the reasons is representation: in Canada, we have only 24% women on our committees. Women need to be more involved in the development of standards.”