Nasa spacesuits are further evidence of a world designed for men

Nasa’s cancellation of its all-female spacewalk showed that it’s easier to change individuals than social structures. 

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Women can spend weeks – nay, months – planning a special event, then back out at the last minute because they’ve nothing to wear. Take Christina Koch and Anne McClain, the astronauts who were due to take part in the first all-female spacewalk on Friday. Unfortunately McClain was forced to drop out as Koch took the last medium-sized spacesuit. In Koch’s defence, McClain had thought she’d be able to wear a larger size.

As Nasa spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz explains, “Anne trained in ‘M’ and ‘L’ and thought she could use a large but decided after Friday’s spacewalk a medium fits better”. In this case, Schierholz added, it was “easier (and faster!) to change space-walkers than reconfigure the spacesuit.”

Of course, it all makes perfect sense. And yet there’s something strangely familiar – and depressing – about this story.

It’s not that Nasa is being sexist – far from it. They’d be perfectly happy to oversee an all-female spacewalk, provided that suits were available. Since they’re not, it’s just “easier (and faster!)” to replace a woman with a man. What could be the problem with that?

Nothing, were one to consider it in isolation. Nonetheless, similar scenarios seem to arise with alarming frequency. For some mysterious reason, there are so many things – spacewalks, drug trials, presidencies – for which men happen to end up a better fit. The Nasa spacesuit scenario typifies a problem women can’t ever seem to escape, not even when they leave the planet.

Take high-power roles back on Earth, for instance. I am sure most employers would be delighted to have more women at the top. It’s just “easier (and faster!)” to replace someone who might get pregnant and is twice as likely to have unpaid caring responsibilities with someone who won’t and isn’t.

It’s “easier (and faster!)” to keep promoting men than it is to revise your maternity leave and flexible working policies. The same goes for ignoring the unpaid contributions that female labour makes to the economy, rather than creating workplace crèches or offering support for elderly care.

While I don’t disagree that, in this instance, it is indeed easier and faster to change spacewalkers than reconfigure their spacesuits, it seems the whole world is littered with metaphorical spacesuits that no one can be bothered to reconfigure, because it is easier to change people than it is to change systems. And anyhow, it’s not as though some things aren’t set up for women rather than men. Who needs spacesuits that fit when they’ve got high heels that do?

In Invisible Women, Caroline Criado-Perez describes the far-reaching impact of living in a world in which male bodies and male social contexts are default. “The lives of men,” writes Criado-Perez, “have been taken to represent the lives of humans overall.” And certainly, some people – mainly men – are okay with this. As a million trolling responses to Criado-Perez’s razor sharp arguments have put it, surely someone’s got to take on that all-important role of serving as our social norm. Don’t women have other things (menstruating, gestating, the washing up) to be getting on with?

Yet such beliefs, Criado-Perez points out, can have serious consequences:

“They impact on women’s lives, every day. The impact can be relatively minor – struggling to reach a top shelf set at a male height norm, for example. Irritating, certainly. But not life-threatening. Not like crashing in a car whose safety tests don’t account for women’s measurements. Not like dying from a stab wound because your police body armour doesn’t fit you properly. For these women, the consequences of living in a world built around male data can be deadly.”

Women are losing their lives because the effort of seeing things from a female perspective has proved too taxing. After all, it is “easier (and faster!)” to see the average woman’s failure to be as tall and heavy as the average man as just that – a failing on her part.

Systems and resources created by and for humans – from economic structures to spacesuits – are not expected to change. But women are, lest they want to be replaced by a man. I am not suggesting Nasa should have cancelled their spacewalk. I’m guessing these events take significant planning and, while you can get the spacesuits in place, sometimes you just can’t get the female bodies. Not even when you know which female bodies will be wearing the suits. Thankfully there’s a man on hand to fit the large, aka normal, sized suit that McClain has failed to fit. Good old men.

As Brandi Dean, spokeswoman for Nasa’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, explains: “individuals’ sizing needs may change when they are [in] orbit, in response to the changes living in microgravity can bring about in a body”. Yet even with these changes, you can find a man who’s the right size – even in space! It’s almost as though it has something to do with the range of sizes available in the first place, leaning towards one half of the human race as opposed to the other.

It’s a pity, as setting up the first all-female spacewalk isn’t rocket science. If it was, Nasa would be sorted. But catering for female bodies, whether on Earth or in space, would still appear to be out of its reach.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.