Addressing gender blind spots in sustainability standards

Achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls sits as one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 5) set by the United Nations. At international level, the attainment of SDG 5 has galvanised interest by the standards community to innovate gender responsiveness in core technical issues like assurance, standard-setting, and monitoring and evaluation.

The need for standards to be more responsive to gender issues is growing recognition in leading standards bodies and Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) schemes to integrate gender perspective more thoroughly into their standards, systems and reporting, as well as engaging in gender-focused projects.

However, in most instances, sustainability standards are rarely designed with gender equality as a key aim, and more than half of the standards in the ITC Standards Map database do not cover gender issues at all.[1] When gender is included, it is mostly related to non-discrimination, including discrimination on the grounds of race, religious belief, disability and so forth, which dilutes any focus to empower women. Even if equal rights are included i.e equal pay and equal access to employment and productive resources, key gender issues such as land rights, unpaid care work, maternity rights and representation are often ignored. Women are less likely than men to be members of producer organisations, which are generally reserved for those who own or manage land. These inequalities can exclude women from more lucrative opportunities within the agricultural sector, including engaging in VSS-compliant production for high-value markets, since VSS schemes usually require farmers to be organised in some way in order to be able to communicate the requirements of standards, deliver training and other support, and monitor performance.

Inadequate attention to gender in sustainability standards could be related to a lack of representation of women in the standards regulatory processes, including agenda setting and development of standards, policies, and strategies.

Commemorating the International Women´s Day 2021, UNFSS has partnered with the Organization of International Women in Trade (OWIT) to address gendered blind spots in sustainability standards through its dialogue on Applying Gender Lens on Sustainability Standards and Certification Systems for International Trade. Together with key partners, the UNECE, IISD, ARSO, ISO and ISEAL, the dialogue covered several gender-related nuances that are lacking in sustainability standards, as well as actionable touchpoints to improve conditions for women through standards implementation.

Kathleen Sexsmith, Assistant Professor and Gender Expert at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) highlighted some cross-cutting approaches where VSS can have an impact. These themes include, i) promoting dietary diversity; ii) improved access to credit and higher incomes (i.e Fairtrade); iii) equally promotes girls and boy’s education; iv) financial support for labour-saving investments; v) promote greater participation in production processes and producer groups and vi) employment criteria exceed national laws, workplace health and safety with gender provisions.

The rationale behind these themes points to the fact that certification leads to higher incomes which can contribute to food security. Particularly when women have control of an income stream, and that financial supports provided through certification can contribute to women´s access to productive inputs and credit. In parallel, standards promote children´s attendance at schooling through the prohibition of child labour, and certification, in a nutshell,

  • can alleviate some of women´s domestic labour burden through financial support for labour-saving investments,
  • can contribute to gender equality in decision making in producer and worker groups, particularly when gender equality training is provided,
  • encourages decent work conditions for women aged labourers because they require compliance with certification criteria that exceed national laws,
  • can improve occupational safety and health conditions related to women workers, specific needs.

Similarly, Hermogene Nsengimana, Secretary General of the African Organization for Standardization (ARSO) presented the ARSO´s standards development process where out of 754 Technical Committee experts in ARSO, only 29% are female. If more women are represented he said, there will be a change in the content of standards with women sharing clear examples on the ground.

Complementing ARSO´s deliberation for gender balance in standards development, Elisabeth Tuerk, Director of the Economic Cooperation and Trade at UNECE provided a brief introduction on the Declaration on Gender Responsive Standards, which aims to support inclusive standards development process and strengthen standards´ gender-responsiveness. Led by UNECE, this declaration has received over 70 signatories to recognise that the content of standards and engaging in the standards development process are opportunities for women´s empowerment.

Like UNECE, Noelia Garcia-Nebra, Programme Manager for Gender Action at the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) presented the ISO´s Gender Action Plan with a more provocative lens stating that standards are not gender-neutral and that more should be done apart from increasing women representation in standards development. This includes guidance to help Technical Committees mainstream gender in standard´s development process, promoting the collection and use of data, as well as capacity building to help women-owned businesses implement standards.

Finally, Vidya Rangan, Senior Manager of Impacts and Evidence at ISEAL discussed the role of sustainability standards and gender inclusiveness in supply chains and trade, highlighting the impact of COVID-19 pandemic as well as a stark reminder of deep gender inequities embedded within economies and societies. For private-owned market-based sustainability standards brought together by ISEAL, driving systemic change means improving conditions for women workers in global supply chains where sustainability standards can integrate stronger gender lens into standards´ content and criteria, innovating in the field of assurance and auditing to detect gender-related offences and support compliance and continuous improvement.

UNFSS Takeaways

Power of Data: Drawing similar senses to Ms. Tuerk and Ms. Garcia-Nebra, Ms. Rangan also pointed the importance of data to drive gender-responsive strategies that can include gender-disaggregated data collection for better analyses, supporting producer-level gender discussions and also new ways to assess and address gender pay gaps. There are already interests from sustainability standards systems to include more robust and meaningful indicators to track progress on gender equality in performance monitoring efforts, as well as to conduct in-depth evaluations.

Promote gender-sensitive auditing: Many auditors are male and may not be trained in areas that naturally allow them to be aware of or detect issues related to gender. Thus, it is important to consider advances in the auditing process of certification. Auditors should be equipped with training and facilitation skills to identify and address gender specific issues.

Women representation in standards development/ decision making: As all the speakers have raised the importance to consider better representation of women in standards development and decision-making process, it goes without saying that standards cannot be gender blind. It is important to ensure a strong gender perspective through female-led leaderships and/or creating gender task forces to help integrate gender components across projects and departments and investing in gender experts.

Catalyse change: As with many of the social issues that sustainability standards cover, gender inequality has its root causes outside supply chains, in wider society. Dealing with these issues within the supply chain alone is not enough to address the root causes and provide sustainable solutions. Given the structural barriers to gender equality, a catalyse change is critically important through a supportive approach as opposed to compliance-based approach which may result in barriers to market entry for suppliers in countries or contexts which have a poor performance on gender equality, as that would further disadvantage the women in those locations.

Through this dialogue, UNFSS has gathered several touchpoints to take a step further in its contribution to gender inclusivity through sustainability standards. Tapping on UNFSS´s wide array of network namely, academic experts, standards experts, national and regional standards bodies, as well as support organizations such as OWIT, and its embeddedness with the United Nations entities, UNFSS will consider gender-related collaborative activities to study and address the root causes of gender inequality from the design and effectiveness perspective of sustainability standards to lead sustainable improvements for women.

[1] ITC’s Standards Map indicates that ‘gender issues’ are included in only 78 out of 255 standards (31 percent), although ‘discrimination at work’ is included in somewhat more (91 standards). Similarly, of the 122 VSS schemes which UNFSS reviewed, only 45 (37 percent) included at least one general principle addressing gender issues (UNFSS 2018).

The United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS) is a joint initiative of 5 UN Agencies (FAO, ITC, UNCTAD, UN Environment and UNIDO) that seeks to address these challenges. It is a demand-driven forum for intergovernmental actors to communicate among each other and engage with key target groups (producers, traders, consumers, standard-setters, certification-bodies, trade diplomats, relevant NGOs and researchers) to address their information needs and influence concerned stakeholders. It aims to provide impartial information, analysis, and discussions on VSS and their potential contribution to facilitate market access, strengthen public goods and achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Most importantly, the UNFSS focuses on potential trade or development obstacles VSS may create, with particular emphasis on their impact on SMEs and less developed countries.