A colleague of mine forwarded this article to me this week, which discussed how the first NASA all-women spacewalk was canceled due to unavailability of spacesuits to fit two women astronauts, Anne McClain and Christina Koch. This operation was deemed to be an important milestone for a growing number of female candidates and astronauts, and a significant step towards gender equality at NASA. However, only Koch would take part on the spacewalk scheduled for Friday, March 29th because it is easier to swap in a male astronaut to replace McClain, rather than reconfiguring a spacesuit to fit her.
To elaborate, NASA had planned this spacewalk to be an all-women operation supported by women on the ground and a female flight controller.
Isn’t it ironic that such great efforts can be stopped simply by not having the proper gear for women to fully function and perform at their jobs?
Unfortunately, such issues are more common than you’d think.
In May 2016, the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) conducted a survey to review women’s experiences of wearing PPE. 3086 women responded to the survey, spanning an age range from 20–59 and a wide range of sectors from emergency services, transport manufacturing, construction, R&D and nuclear. The survey overwhelmingly found that ill-fitting personal protective equipment (PPE) for women was a common experience, but was often accepted as just the way things are.
Interestingly, 57% of respondents reported that their PPE significantly hampered their work. In the case of pregnant respondents, half had reported that they have either curtailed the normal range of their duties or had to change their roles in the run-up to their maternity leave. Some needed to start their maternity leave earlier than they had wanted to. Importantly, ill-fitting PPE was shown to diminish women’s self-confidence at work, make them feel unprofessional, and in some cases caused physical permanent damage to them.
So why is it so hard to have PPE for women?
PPE for women is seen as optional. Some employers refuse to alter and change their procurement processes to source PPE for women’s sizes, especially in smaller companies where the majority of workers are men. Since there is no demand at the company level, the suppliers don’t see it as important to offer such products, leading to a lack of woman-friendly PPE.
The wise Marie Curie once said
“One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.”
Ladies, we know that we can’t change the current situation, but here is how I believe we could all forge paths for us and future generations of women to not be excluded from opportunities because companies can’t find protective gear to fit them.
1. Speak up to your employer
Let your company know the importance of safety compliance and liability for having appropriate PPE for you. Better yet, let them know that you would prefer to buy your own PPE and be reimbursed for doing so.
2. Demand products from your suppliers
Next time you are speaking with a sales rep from one of your suppliers, ask for options for women-friendly PPE. The more they recognize this demand, the more likely it is that products for such a market will be developed, procured, and distributed.
3. Support women-friendly protective gear
I am dreaming of the day where all women can achieve and accomplish their dreams, where pregnant workers can lead their teams up to maternity leave if they want to, and the day all women spacewalk missions won’t get canceled simply because they can’t find suits to fit the brilliant women on those missions.