But this was not an intentional goal for NASA to achieve. The first female astronaut Kathryn Sullivan walked in space in 1984. Why the 35-year delay? It’s definitely not a pipeline problem. These days there are equal numbers of qualified female and male candidates vying for space missions.
It’s an equipment problem – spacesuits only come in medium, large and extra-large sizes. Space suits are not being made that would fit women – and that’s the reason why women have less opportunities to do space walks
The lack of intentionality to actively address the male norms for space flight limits diversity. It literally says, if you don’t fit the suit, you don’t fit in … when in fact body size and proportions have nothing to do with capabilities.
Another equally false assertion is that a large male body type is necessary since ‘there may be some heavy lifting during the mission’ but in zero gravity space conditions, this is nonsense.
Other male dominated industries are also limiting women’s participation and safety when they do not take the necessary steps to address existing industrial male-focused norms.
Take for example, the construction industry. Traditionally safety gear also referred to as personal protective equipment (PPE) was designed to fit average sized men. As more women start working on construction sites, large manufacturing companies introduced unisex PPE options. More often than not, unisex gear is simply a smaller version of the existing PPE range. While unisex safety gear may be appropriate for some limited situations, women are not just smaller-sized men, their body configurations and proportions are different. Correctly sized and fitted PPE is especially important for hazardous settings.
But even when PPE gear is marketed for women, it does not mean that it has been tested on women. In some cases, fall protection harnesses have been adapted to fit women’s bodies more comfortably, but they have never actually been biomechanically tested on women. In deadly situations, there is no guarantee they will actually work.
Women workers, already highly visible in a male dominated industry, don’t want special attention or treatment – they just want to get the job done like their male co-workers. Too often this means putting up with ill-fitting unisex gear their bosses bought in bulk on Amazon.
The right talent ‘fit’ for the job should not be limited by the lack of suitable equipment to adequately enable and protect different body types.