Two years ago I went to interview Roberta Bondar, the first female Canadian astronaut, and she spent some time talking about the gloves that did not fit. The story she told took place in 1992, when Dr. Bondar was trying to complete her tasks aboard the space shuttle Discovery, part of which involved work in a pressurized system that required specially designed gloves.
There was only one problem. ‘’The gloves were men’s gloves,” she told me. “They were not made for a woman. It was very hard for me to use them.” Any suggestion she made about redesigning the gloves was rebuffed with, “no, too expensive.” She would later see pictures of herself in these comically ill-fitting gloves, and remember how a relatively simple task became needlessly complicated because of bad design. Not even wilfully bad design; more like woefully ignorant design.
The space shuttle, she said, “had been designed for men.” If women were going to be astronauts, that needed to change from the planning stages onward: “If we think of accessing space, and we want good gender representation, we have to have engineers there who are women as well.”
You might hope that things had changed in the intervening 27 years, and indeed much has improved. (For example, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t see the newspaper headline published while our first female astronaut orbited above: “Bondar Spends Hours Tidying Up Shuttle.”)
NASA proudly announced that women made up half of its class of 2013. It also proudly announced a historic first that would take place during Women’s History Month: For the first time, two female astronauts, Christina Koch and Anne McClain, would walk in space together as they went outside the International Space Station to install batteries.
Except, as earthlings now know, this week’s historic spacewalk was cancelled, because there weren’t two lady-sized spacesuits ready for the two women who needed them. Ms. McClain did her training in both medium- and large-sized space suits, but discovered on her first spacewalk that a medium-sized torso portion fitted her better. As the New York Times reported, “of the two medium-size torsos available, one has yet to be properly configured for a spacewalk. It would take hours of crew labour – not to mention some additional risk – to fix that in time” for both female astronauts to walk together. NASA has said it hopes to reschedule the spacewalk, but it won’t happen during Women’s History Month.
Popular Science pointed out that the roots of these inequalities have repercussions today, echoing what Dr. Bondar told me: “If we had more spacesuits, and ones in smaller sizes, it’s possible all of this could have been avoided. And if NASA had been more inclusive toward women since its inception, perhaps we would have had them.”
It will not surprise any woman who has tried to squeeze into a roller coaster’s unforgiving chest restraints that this world is not designed with our measurements in mind. But really – does the injustice have to follow us into space?
I would laugh, except that probably I should cry (searching in vain for tissues in my dress with no pockets.) The fact that design has historically excluded women, not to mention those with disabilities and people of colour, isn’t merely fodder for Twitter exasperation or good-natured yuks on morning TV. It’s discriminatory, sometimes dangerous, and it works to keep certain segments of the population from ever feeling completely at home in the world. Or, indeed, in outer space.
It is a contemporary inequality that spans the globe, as the British author Caroline Criado Perez exhaustively documents in her new book, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. “From development initiatives to smartphones, from medical tech to stoves, tools (whether physical or financial) are developed without reference to women’s needs, and as a result these tools are failing them on a grand scale,” Ms. Criado Perez writes. “And this failure affects women’s lives on a similarly grand scale: it makes them poorer, it makes them sicker, and, when it comes to cars, it is killing them.”
The modern world has been designed with a hole at its centre that she calls “a female shaped ‘absent presence.’” This has resulted from two intertwined phenomena: An absence of data based on women’s physical lives, so that men’s data becomes the norm, and a world designed almost exclusively by men, so that men’s lived experience becomes the default. And if you think that women’s absence in planning everything from health care to transport systems is trivial, Ms. Criado Perez has dozens of instances that prove it’s detrimental – and in some cases lethal.
So, we live with crash-test dummies that are designed to mimic an average man’s physiognomy, ignoring the severity of women’s injuries in car crashes; female heart attacks that are overlooked or misdiagnosed; houses rebuilt in disaster zones without kitchens; public washrooms and transport systems that are designed without recognizing the reality of a woman’s life, which is that she will often have a child or elderly relative in tow. It’s enough to make you want to lie down and sleep for a century in your dress, which has been designed without pockets because pockets are unflattering.
“Failing to collect data on women and their lives means that we continue to naturalize sex and gender discrimination – while at the same time somehow not seeing any of this discrimination,” she writes.
Perhaps we are starting to acknowledge this discrimination, as the outcry over the man-sized spacesuits demonstrates. The good news is that the world is waking up to the problems of bias inherent in design. We now recognize that algorithms and machine learning will only be as good as the people who program them – or, conversely, as short-sighted as the people who program them. We recognize that automated systems can be just as prejudiced as people, and that astronauts come in different sizes.