All-fe­male space­walk is a fit­ting me­taphor

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY MARISA PORGES New York Times

Over the past few weeks, NASA has been cel­e­brat­ing a pend­ing mile­stone: the first-ever all-fe­male space­walk (just in time for Women’s His­tory Month, even). It wasn’t un­til March 25, just a few days be­fore this week’s planned mis­sion to have two women step into space to in­stall pow­er­ful bat­ter­ies on the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion’s so­lar pan­els, that the crew re­al­ized the highly pub­li­cized plan had a ma­jor prob­lem.

There weren’t enough space­suits that fit the fe­male as­tro­nauts. We did not cel­e­brate an all-fe­male space­walk af­ter all.

The news brought back a vivid me­mory from when I served aboard an air­craft car­rier about a decade ago, fly­ing jets for the Navy. It was the time when a main­te­nance chief ca­su­ally asked me to sign a seem­ingly in­nocu­ous pa­per, which, upon closer in­spec­tion, was in fact a form say­ing that I un­der­stood that the ejec­tion seat on my jet was not de­signed for some­one of my height and weight. I wasn’t close to the size of an av­er­age man, so there was an in­creased risk of ma­jor in­jury if I used the safety equip­ment for its stated emer­gency pur­pose. By sign­ing, I agreed to waive the Navy’s li­a­bil­ity were some­thing to hap­pen to me if it mal­func­tioned.

Af­ter two years of fly­ing jets for the mil­i­tary, it was as if some­one sud­denly no­ticed that my 5-foot-2 fe­male frame wasn’t what the men who built the plane, de­signed the safety gear and tested the emer­gency pro­ce­dures had in mind. Iron­i­cally, the big­gest sys­temic bar­ri­ers to my pur­su­ing a naval ca­reer – in­clud­ing the Navy’s pol­icy re­gard­ing women fly­ing in com­bat – had been lifted years be­fore. But the phys­i­cal le­ga­cies of an era when men made de­ci­sions with other men in mind per­sisted.

Judg­ing from the NASA news, this is still true.

It’s an im­por­tant re­minder that while we of­ten fo­cus on ma­jor sys­temic is­sues fac­ing work­ing women – prob­lems like gen­der-based wage gaps, fam­ily leave poli­cies, ca­reer pipe­lines for women in un­der­rep­re­sented fields – the “lit­tle things” re­ally do mat­ter. Things like the lack of ad­e­quate lac­ta­tion rooms in most of­fice build­ings, an­ti­quated of­fice dress codes that re­quire women to wear high heels to work and the size of safety gear avail­able for fe­male as­tro­nauts.

My stu­dents are well aware of the in­sti­tu­tional bar­ri­ers they are likely to face, par­tic­u­larly if they fol­low a pas­sion for com­puter sci­ence or en­gi­neer­ing, want to be­come an en­trepreneur or pur­sue any of the var­i­ous pro­fes­sions in which women are still greatly un­der­rep­re­sented. They know that they will be held to a dif­fer­ent stan­dard, their style of lead­er­ship may be ques­tioned, and gen­der norms will make it that much harder to jug­gle fam­ily and work. They un­der­stand what ob­sta­cles to ex­pect and are ready for what’s to come.

The news from NASA re­minds us why it’s so crit­i­cal to talk hon­estly about the last­ing le­ga­cies of a gen­der-bi­ased era – the “lit­tle” things that will af­fect the daily lives and ca­reers of women for decades to come. When we don’t, it turns out that even the world’s best rocket sci­en­tists can for­get that space­suits were orig­i­nally de­signed and built for men. Our girls – to­mor­row’s as­tro­nauts – de­serve bet­ter than that.

Marisa Porges is head of school at The Bald­win School in Bryn Mawr, Pa.

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