Why global accounting standards need an urgent gender lens overhaul

From aircraft safety to finance, we live our lives by standards. But so many of these standards are based on decades old principles that now simply embed and reinforce patriarchy – not least in the world of financial accounting. With new developments like AI exacerbating existing prejudices, Jeremy Nicholls argues there’s an urgent need to catch up – and shake up the status quo.

There is nothing like a discussion about standards to raise the level of excitement in a room. Sorry…… that should have been ‘lower’.

And yet our world is mainly the result of standards. We have informal standards for behaviour in restaurants, in lifts, in queues (the list goes on), that ease our day to day interactions. We have many more formal standards. A plane wouldn’t be able to fly unless all the parts have met one standard or another. Financial accounts can only be prepared because there are standards, standards for preparing them and then auditing them, standards for people using them to advise others, and so on and on and on. These standards have defined the world, setting limits on what can and cannot be done or created, or even imagined.  

Many of these standards were created hundreds of years ago but new ones are being created all the time. Many of these new standards look back and are informed by older ones.


Read: Will accountants save the world? and more articles in Jeremy's Nicholls & Dimes series 


It seems obvious on reflection – but often forgotten – that standards that do not reflect the views of communities that will use a standard, or whose actions will be prescribed by that standard, will be biased, and will create inequality. There are many types of bias but one fundamental type, given it affects 52% of the world, is gender bias.

The constitution of the United States of America, article 2 section 1:

‘The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.

He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years…..’ 

How many standards have been created that have considered a gender lens during their development? Not just in ensuring that there is gender equality in those creating standards but also that aims and objectives of the standards reflect people’s needs and expectations. Without a gender lens there is a significant risk that standards simply embed and reinforce patriarchy. Given that for most of us standards are not the most exciting thing in the world, this means that patriarchy remains embedded without anyone even noticing.

And the older the standard the worse the problem will be.     

Given that for most of us standards are not the most exciting thing in the world, this means that patriarchy remains embedded without anyone even noticing                                                                                       

Civil law

Civil law is as old as the hills. But perhaps the model for so much modern legislation was the French Civil Code of 1804. In many respects this was radical, abolishing privileges and ecclesiastical authority in civil law. And yet it came with entrenched family provisions that protected men and disempowered women, especially married women and unmarried mothers. It wouldn’t be until 1965 that married women in France could practise a profession without approval of their husbands.

The German Civil code was not unified until 1900 and if anything went further in establishing equality. Except again in family law where again the husband could cancel his wife’s work contracts if he felt she was neglecting her domestic tasks. Women in Germany had to wait until 1977 for formal equality in family law.

The position in English Common Law was worse. On marriage, women’s rights were curtailed and despite some changes at the end of the 19th century, again equality would have to wait until the 1960s.

Despite these improvements and significant legislation over the past 60 years there is still some way to go. The existence of legislation does not mean it is enforced. Pay inequality remains significant especially when company structures allow inequality to be externalised through supply chains. A company that buys services indirectly from a third or fourth tier supplier may be buying services where the working conditions would not be acceptable in the company buying the services and where employees have far less legal protection.

And equality in law is at least a relatively visible issue.

A bigger challenge is those standards which refer to ‘people’ in general and where there is an assumption that sex does not make a difference. International Accounting Standard 320 on Materiality in Planning and Performing Audit discusses materiality in the context of a ‘reasonable’ user and in paragraph 4 states:

'The auditor’s determination of materiality is a matter of professional judgment, and is affected by the auditor’s perception of the financial information needs of users of the financial statements. In this context, it is reasonable for the auditor to assume that users: (a) (b) (c) (d) 5.

  1. Have a reasonable knowledge of business and economic activities and accounting and a willingness to study the information in the financial statements with reasonable diligence;
  2. Understand that financial statements are prepared, presented and audited to levels of materiality;
  3. Recognize the uncertainties inherent in the measurement of amounts based on the use of estimates, judgment and the consideration of future events; and
  4. Make reasonable economic decisions on the basis of the information in the financial statements.’  

Whether what is a reasonable economic decision might not be the same for males or females is not explored. But the implications are huge. Imagine if it was reasonable to make economic decisions informed by the social and environmental consequences of those decisions to others, to make decisions based on empathy.

These standards still drive behaviours, behaviours which remain gendered, or do not represent the perspectives of today’s women, and perhaps increasingly now of men either. It is harder to see gender in these standards and yet the effects are just as damaging.  

Imagine if it was reasonable to make economic decisions informed by the social and environmental consequences of those decisions to others, to make decisions based on empathy

Financial accounting

Standards for financial accounting are an example of gendered standards which continue to wreak havoc on society. We can see the problems – but who would notice the causes? Accounting is just accounting. If there was one thing that was gender neutral it must be accounting. Surely?

Whilst financial accounting has been around for a very long time, the current approach has its roots in the13th century. It was developed during ‘the age of exploration’ and the witch hunts of the 17th century, and was the accounting system that underpinned colonialism, the reduction of the commons and the shift to a capitalist economy in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was not until the 1973, that all this practice and experience was standardised in the exciting language of accounting and the connection to that history is lost.

And yet the building block for financial accounting remains the assumption that its users are interested in financial returns. And nothing else. This may well have been the motivation for men from the 13th century onwards. But was it the motivation for women? Research has shown that women are more empathetic than men. Whether the difference is socially constructed or biologically determined is not really the point. The point is that accounting only reflects the purpose of people interested solely in their own financial concerns with no consideration of other consequences, for themselves, or their families. Hardly empathetic. A gender lens would cause us to reflect on whether we need a change in the underlying assumption of accounting, perhaps to one where users are interested in both financial returns and the consequences for others.

A gender lens would cause us to reflect on whether we need a change in the underlying assumption of accounting, perhaps to one where users are interested in both financial returns and the consequences for others


The international Federation of the National Standardizing Associations started in 1926 and was suspended during World War II. Approaches by the UN Standards Coordinating Committee (UNSCC) resulted in the creation of the International Standards Organisation in 1947, some time before the standardisation of accounting got under way. The first standard – Standard reference temperature for industrial length measurements – was published in 1951.

With hindsight, this may have been a missed opportunity to bring financial accounting under the ISO umbrella, since ISO have been considering the implications of gender in standards for some time. In 2019 ISO released guidance for ISO and IEC technical committees on gender responsive standards (though this is not mandatory), signed the UNECE declaration on gender responsive standards, and launched its first Gender Action Plan, the second following in 2022.

This year ISO released information on the future standard ISO 53800 - Guidance for promotion and implementation of gender equality and women’s empowerment - which is expected later in 2024. There is what ISO call a management system standard for Gender Equality, Nordom 775 among others, and work is now just starting on a management system for SDG management, ISO 53001, that will include gender equality and is also a standard against which an organisation can be certified.

The ISO’s Gender Equality Plan recognises that there is still work to do and ISO is encouraging its members, the national standards bodies, to replicate the plan locally. But it may be time to take a gender lens to existing standards, starting with the older and most used ones. Just in case!

AI and algorithms

There are though developments which are running ahead of our ability to create standards and which, unfortunately, will be busy embedding patriarchy. Whether by design or accident, where there is inequality, developments will favour the group with more power and influence. Otherwise there wouldn’t be much inequality left. 

There is a Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) article, ‘When Good Algorithms Go Sexist: Why and How to Advance AI Gender Equity’, written by Genevieve Smith and Ishita Rustagi in 2021. It’s excellent so read it here but in summary, AI will be biased because AI systems are created by people and there is a huge gender gap in AI professionals but also in the generation and collection of data that is used in AI. One of the consequences is that existing, harmful stereotypes and prejudices are reinforced and exacerbated.

A solution, that I would add to the authors’ list, is to strengthen the links between standard bodies, legislative requirements and the way in which technological change is accepted in society, including AI. We need standards for AI, but we also need society to require gender sensitive governance, in both legislation and in any other area where what is ‘normal’ would lead to gender bias. And that includes the development of new standards.   


The problem then is that standards are critical but as fast as we develop solutions to inequality, changes in society, driven by technology or by external shocks, deepen and reinforce inequality. According to the recent UN SDG progress report, gender equality in legal protection and discriminatory laws is 286 years away at current rates. A time horizon that is drifting out at the same time as ‘we’ recognise the need to address climate change within a few years and talk about a just transition.

But we need to catch up and then get ahead or any progress will be undermined. Positive change is not making steps towards equality; it has to be change at a faster rate than inequality is being created. This means we need to go back to those standards, customs and rules which have been around the longest, which we may not think are gendered, give them a long hard look, and change them if necessary. And this includes financial accounting.


  • Jeremy Nicholls is the assurance framework lead for the UNDP SDG Impact Standards and an ambassador to the Capitals Coalition.
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