During the pandemic, women’s healthcare workers were reported to be at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 due to ill-fitting personal protective equipment. This kind of personal protective equipment used in hospitals was based on male anthropometry.1

In March 2019, the first all-woman spacewalk was cancelled because NASA did not plan spacesuits which adapted to women astronauts.2

These issues redirect us to the fact that standards are made by men for men and that women are under-represented in technical committees.

According to ISO, the participation of men in standardization is twice as high as women, and across all sectors, men outnumber women, by more than 20 % on average.3

What are standards?

Standards can be thought of as a formula that describes the best way of doing something. It could be about making a product, managing a process, delivering a service, or supplying materials – standards cover a vast range of activities.

Standards are the distilled wisdom of people with expertise in their subject matter and who know the needs of the organizations they represent – people such as manufacturers, sellers, buyers, customers, trade associations, users or regulators.4

Need for standards

  1. Help ensure the safety and efficiency of devices, systems or services for people and the environment
  2. Are used in testing, certification, and to meet manufacturer promises
  3. Can provide technical details in regulations
  4. Facilitate international trade

According to Sonya Bird "Standards matter for so many reasons – they establish a baseline for addressing safety, security, and sustainability. They provide rules for product design and establish common requirements to facilitate trade across borders."

Why do many standards fail to account for women?

It may boil down to two inter-related factors in accordance with the report "When one size does not protect all: understanding why gender matters for standardization",

  1. The lack of female representation in the development of standards
  2. The lack of gender expertise in standards development

Importance of inclusion of women

  1. Standards touch almost every aspect of our lives. They facilitate trade, reduce costs and support innovation, but to make them effective in responding to current and future challenges, gender must become an integral part of standardization for safety reasons.
  1. Gender bias can have a serious impact on women’s health. A report in Fierce Healthcare underscores how it can create dangers in medical treatment, from cardiovascular disease to mental health and pain management.
  1. Products tested and designed by men lead to more workplace accidents and higher health risks to women in the workforce.

In the UK, for example, a report by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) established that ill-fitting personal protective equipment for women was worst in the emergency services, with body armour, stab vests, high-visibility safety vests and jackets all highlighted as unsuitable.

How to bridge the gap
The International Electrotechnical Commission published a diversity statement in 20205 wherein they agreed to:

  1. Raise awareness of the importance of gender in standardization
  2. Collect data on gender representation to better understand the scale of the challenges
  3. Advance the contribution women are making in the world of standardization
  4. Commit to create, implement and track progress of a gender action plan

Sonya Bird shares her inspiring journey from being a student of STEM to taking up a career in standards. She reveals her source of motivation, and shares strategies to have a successful career in standards. She points out the need for diversity-and-inclusion in standardization and shares curated career advice for women.

Sonya Bird is a director of International Standards at Underwriters Laboratories. She has been with Underwriters Laboratories for 30 years. She was named a Distinguished Member of Technical Staff at Underwriters Laboratories.

Sonya also serves on various national and international forums, representing the United States on the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), as well as on various leading IEC task forces.

She is a recipient of the IEC Thomas A. Edison award, ANSI Elihu Thomson Electrotechnology Medal.

Tune in to learn more about her and listen to our podcast “Word to the W.I.S.E.”


  1. "PPE Fit of Healthcare Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic”. PubMed Central (PMC). Accessed April 10, 2022. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8516797/.
  2.  "First All Female Spacewalk Cancelled"https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/25/science/female-spacewalk-canceled.html
  3. "Women In Standards". ISO. https://www.iso.org/strategy2030/key-areas-of-work/diversity-and-inclusion/women-in-standards.html.
  4. "Standards". ISO. https://www.iso.org/standards.html.
  5. Garcia Nebra, Noelia. 2021. "ISO Raises The Standard On Gender Equality". ISO. https://www.iso.org/news/ref2771.html.
  6. Bischofberger, Catherine. 2020. "Safety Standards: How To Include Women?". IEC E-Tech. https://etech.iec.ch/issue/2020-05/safety-standards-how-to-include-women.