All-female spacewalk is a fitting metaphor
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.