It’s a man’s world

From spacesuits to hiking boots, just about everything is designed for men

Created date

June 28th, 2019
NASA astronauts Nick Hague, Anne McClain and Christina Koch work on U.S. spacesuit maintenance in the Quest airlock of the International Space Station.

NASA astronauts Nick Hague, Anne McClain and Christina Koch work on U.S. spacesuit maintenance in the Quest airlock of the International Space Station.

Earlier this year, American astronauts Christina Koch and Anne McClain were scheduled to upgrade the power systems on the International Space Station. The otherwise routine mission would be historic—the first all-female spacewalk—but days before the scheduled mission, NASA announced that McClain would not be participating. 

The last-minute change in plans came about because the space station had only one size medium spacesuit assembled and ready to go, and both women wore the same size. Initially, McClain thought she could use extra padding and wear a larger spacesuit, but when she tested it out, she determined that wearing a suit that didn’t fit properly was not the way to go.

Shortly after the announcement, McClain tweeted, “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.”

A clarion call

To be clear, NASA says they had other suit configuration possibilities aboard the space shuttle, but getting the needed pieces assembled properly takes time and care and would have forced the agency to delay the mission plan. It was easier to just replace McClain with another astronaut, Nick Hague.

While the decision made sense from an efficiency standpoint, it was a public relations nightmare. Social media lit up with comments about sexism and NASA’s insensitivity to female astronauts. 

Dr. Saralyn Mark, an endocrinologist, geriatrician, and women’s health specialist who has served as a medical and scientific policy advisor to NASA and the White House says the space agency has known about the spacesuit size limitations for decades. 

For her, the issue has less to do with history-making headlines and more to do with having the ability to perform the job safely. 

“Thankfully, no one was hurt,” says Mark. “It was just a clarion call that we have to address this as we head back to the moon and as we go on to Mars. I’m hopeful that the focus will be directed toward ensuring that men and women have their tools and resources so they can do their jobs well.”

While the spacesuit issue may have been a public relations disaster, it did shine a light on a pervasive problem.

Designed for men

So much of what we use on a daily basis was designed for the male anatomy. 

Female surgeons may struggle at times with operating room devices that are too big to manage. 

During the horrific Camp Fire in California, female firefighters had to fight to keep their ill-fitting protective gear in place while battling the flames.

Female police officers put themselves at risk when they wear poorly fitting personal protection vests. Many report having to take the vest off in order to execute certain maneuvers. 

This isn’t just about professional equipment, it’s about everything.

Many aspects of automotive design don’t take the female form into consideration. They didn’t even have female crash dummies until 2011.

And consider the line snaking out of the women’s restroom at a concert while men breeze in and out of their restroom. Most likely, the venue devoted equal space for both men’s and women’s restrooms. However, given that a men’s restroom includes many urinals and a few stalls, the space accommodates far more men at one time than the women’s restroom. To be fair, the women’s restroom should be larger, with more stalls to accommodate an equal number of women. 

Take a hike

And then there’s the issue of products sold to women but designed for men.

This problem hit Mark right in the Achilles tendon when she was hiking in the Colorado Rockies. When one of her boots was damaged, she had to buy a quick substitution. While purchasing the new boots, she noticed that the women’s model looked exactly like the men’s model except for the color. 

It wasn’t until she put the boots to the test on the trails that she realized she was wearing boots designed for men but cosmetically altered to appeal to women consumers—a practice she calls “pink it/shrink it.” The design flaw left her with a torn ligament that she links to wearing boots designed for a male foot.

Mark has made raising awareness of this issue her focus. In 2015, she started a nonprofit called iGIANT (Impact of Gender/Sex on Innovation and Novel Technologies). She invites people from all walks of life to join the conversation at iGIANT roundtables. 

Once the conversation starts, says Mark, even those who started out believing the issue didn’t impact them, start to realize that it does. 

“The gift of this whole spacesuit issue is that it has raised awareness on a broader level,” says Mark. “It’s not just in our space program, it’s in our military, it’s our first responders, it’s in any area where people’s lives are on the line. We know we can do better.”

To learn more about iGIANT or how to organize a roundtable, visit igiant.org.

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