Nasa spacesuit issue sparks debate over gender discrimination in science gear
Women are discussing issues around male-focused equipment after the first all-female spacewalk was postponed ‘due in part to spacesuit availability’.
Women in science are comparing stories of the times they have suffered because of uniforms and safety equipment designed for men.
It comes after Nasa postponed what would have been the first all-female spacewalk “due in part to spacesuit availability” on the International Space Station.
Nasa said the issue with spacesuit sizes came about because Anne McClain, who had been due to undertake the walk alongside Christina Koch, had been intending to wear a large torso on her spacesuit, but had subsequently realised that a medium was more comfortable.
The agency said that, while there was another medium aboard the station, it would take 12 hours to configure, and that was time McClain and others did not feel they had available for the task.
This decision was based on my recommendation. Leaders must make tough calls, and I am fortunate to work with a team who trusts my judgement. We must never accept a risk that can instead be mitigated. Safety of the crew and execution of the mission come first. https://t.co/VU9QNaHHlK— Anne McClain (@AstroAnnimal) March 27, 2019
Biologist Jessica Mounts highlighted the issue on Twitter, pointing out that it would be a situation familiar to many women.
She tweeted: “Raise your hand if you’re a woman in science who’s had to choose between missing out or wearing ill-fitting uniforms, safety equipment, or outdoor gear made for men because that’s all that was available.”
The responses came flooding in.
✋all ✋the ✋goddamn✋time— Lisa Kettemer (@liserbeth) March 26, 2019
Women reported everything from lab coats to wet suits to surgical gowns that did not fit properly.
Surgical gowns for teaching anatomy pracs were only available in "6 foot tall man" sizes. This resulted in me actually passing out from overheating once while teaching because I had to wrap it around me 3 times to stop the bloody thing from dragging in the specimens 😬— Angela May O'Connor (@amayoco) March 26, 2019
I'm 5'3" and when I started one job, the smallest lab coat was an XL. It took weeks before the size Small ones came.— Katharine Bono (@katrane) March 26, 2019
I had to wear a man’s wetsuit for underwater vegetation surveys during a summer job in college. It did not fit properly and I routinely got so chilled I had to get out of the water and wolf down 3 candy bars to keep my body temperature up.— Laura Schmitt Olabisi (@Lkshumaine) March 26, 2019
Ill-fitting waders were a particularly common issue.
Oh boy. Let’s talk about waders.— Dr. Stephanie Guertin (@punkrockscience) March 26, 2019
I spent an entire summer electrofishing in a pair of too-big men’s waders. I fell down and flooded them so many times, my crew kept a tally to see how many days I could go without falling. Max: 3 days 🙄— Great Lakes Cisco (@greatlakescisco) March 26, 2019
Yes, waders! Had to buy my own, and it's not easy to find them in women's sizes. And it's really dangerous if they don't fit when working in soft sediments.— Girl from the north country (@Kirsten91208622) March 26, 2019
Even those who could find waders to fit sometimes struggled to find appropriately sized wet-weather gear to go with them.
Foul weather gear - I managed to find womens-specific waders, but my bibs and rain jacket fit like a tent. I had to cut the bottoms off the legs so I wouldn't trip.— Rosie (@RosieKHart) March 26, 2019
Gloves were another common complaint.
Glove box gloves are always a large. How can you pick up things with an inch of loose rubber at the tip of your fingers?— Dr. Ania Tersakian Sergeenko (@jerichobreeze) March 26, 2019
Twitter users also pointed out the lack of options in plus sizes.
ME: Do you have a women’s plus-size hi-vis surveyor’s vest?— Re Reminder (@rrmndr) March 27, 2019
STORE: Yes, they go to 5X.
ME: Those are for guys. I’m a girl.
STORE: Hmmm, oh yeah, this ladies one goes up to XL!
ME: And what is that in real sizes?
It was a similar story for taller women.
Still haven't found the right fit of field work pants for archaeology - I'm tall, so finding something cut for the curves of my body AND long enough so I don't look like I'm wearing capris in the field is a significant challenge.— Dr. Kisha Supernant (@ArchaeoMapper) March 27, 2019
My least favorite is dive suit tops. I'm tall enough and broad shouldered enough for men's sizes but they don't allow for breasts. And the women's aren't made for larger sized women. Not fun in 50 F water!— Proud to be Antifa (@RenoHatesMe) March 26, 2019
A key point being made was that ill-fitting equipment is not just uncomfortable, it can be actively unsafe.
This can potentially mean women being put in dangerous situations or missing out altogether.
Definitely true, I was going on a boat survey for birds on a section of river, and the dock owners told me that I had to wear safety boots. The only sizes they had were mens 7 and above, so I ended up wearing boots way too big for me ffs. Surely that was less safe!— Sarah L Woods (@Swoodsy94) March 26, 2019
Safety goggles. I’m in the lab working with chemicals, is it really too much to ask for safety goggles that fit smaller heads, so that I don’t have to keep finding ways to push them back on without touching my face with my hands?! Kinda defeats the ‘safety’ point.— Dr Fiona Ingleby (@FionaIngleby) March 27, 2019
And for those who can find the right equipment, it may well come at a premium.
✋ Field geology. Gloves, boots, and rain gear. Male colleagues pay $20-40 for their packable rain gear, the only ones I can find with comparable fit and function run me $125.— Gracie (@Gecrisl) March 27, 2019
Women from other fields pointed out that it is by no means a problem that is confined to the science world.
From sport to security to art, women from all sorts of fields had similar complaints.
See also sporting gear generally. Or if there is an option it is pink and covered in flowers.— Layne Scherer (@LayneScherer) March 26, 2019
It's not just science, either. I was on the security team in a prison for years and had to buy my own gear because everything was made for men! 40lbs of tactical gear that doesn't fit right can really get in the way when you're trying to restrain 200lbs of angry man.— ThatGMChick (@ThatGMchick) March 26, 2019
A little different, but I’m an artist and teach sculpture at a super elite art school - you know, welding and wood shop and whatnot. We often have to order safety equipment from Japan or China so it’ll fit my body properly.— elenaaaa (@ElenaAiles) March 27, 2019
McClain pointed out that the work was still going ahead and “nothing has been cancelled or postponed”, adding “history is made every day up here!”
Tune in - history is made every day up here!— Anne McClain (@AstroAnnimal) March 27, 2019
Nevertheless, it was a moment that resonated strongly with many on social media and highlighted an issue that affects women in science and beyond.