Science Gear Doesn’t Fit Women on Earth, Either

NASA canceled an all-women spacewalk because it doesn’t have two medium-size suits available. Many scientists aren’t surprised.

A woman in a spacesuit.
A woman tries on a small version of the PXS, a spacesuit that will accommodate smaller subjects. NASA

NASA was supposed to have a historic, all-women spacewalk on Friday, but it was canceled because of a frustrating issue: Both women scheduled to walk needed medium suits. There was only one available in orbit.

This isn’t quite as clear a fuckup as it sounds: One of the astronauts thought she’d be able to use a large but, upon arriving in orbit and undergoing the little bodily shifts that microgravity brings, found that the medium was really the best choice. But in a more equal world, NASA would have women spacewalking as regularly as men, and there would be extras of the smaller sizes available as a matter of course.

The fit issue struck a chord here on Earth, particularly among women who have to suit up to do field research, especially those who have to do it in water, which, like the vacuum of space, requires the ability to maneuver in a tricky environment with protection from the elements. “It just brought me back to all of the times I’ve personally had to choose between missing out, or struggling with equipment that didn’t fit and wasn’t made to fit my body,” Jessica Mounts, executive director of the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams, told me in an email.

Mounts recalled needing to select waders—waterproof overalls with feet, used for walking around in streams—that were ill-proportioned for her body. With no women’s waders available, men’s waders that were small enough in the foot were too tight in the rest of her body. “I couldn’t keep up with my male counterparts because I was always stumbling and fighting the physics of 5 mm neoprene that fit too tightly!”

Mounts asked on Twitter what other women had found themselves in a gear predicament like hers and got dozens of replies. I followed up with a few via email. Jessica Ford, a herpetologist studying at McGill University, went so far as to purchase a pair of custom waders for $200 after she found that available waders were too big for her frame. It’s a safety issue, she explains. “When you fall in properly fitting waders, you get some water in the waders, but when you fall in waders that are too big you get a lot of water in your waders,” she said. “That is a big weight difference, and it’s a danger.” She’s seen small folks tie the straps of waders to pull the waist up, which can add to the risk: “now they are harder to escape from, too.”

Adding ties and belts to oversize gear is a common solution. On an oceanographic expedition, microbial ecologist Leila Hamdan, currently at the University of Southern Mississippi, recalls having to jury-rig a survival suit with bungee cords. She was climbing a ladder from one ship to another. “A fall from the ladder would plunge one into the Arctic Ocean,” she said. The suit would keep the plunged person warm and safely afloat. But the only suit available for her was too large and therefore difficult to climb in. “I found a couple of bungee cords, and wrapped one around the waist to cinch it in,” she recalled. She ran another cord between her legs, to pull the crotch material up. “It looked weird but it made the climb a bit more manageable.”

The sizing problems extend to pregnant folks. Beth Darrow, a scientist at Bald Head Island Conservancy, was pregnant with her son while doing fieldwork for her master’s degree, conducting experiments with clams in intertidal mudflats in the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. The work involved a lot of standing in, and sometimes leaning into, cold water (where proper protection is needed against hypothermia). The ideal gear was a wetsuit, but available wetsuits didn’t accommodate her fetus. “I would joke with my colleagues that they probably didn’t expect a lot of pregnant women to go SCUBA diving, so there probably wasn’t a real market for that.” She says that as the weather warmed and her baby grew, she “would just walk around in my two-piece swimsuit and some SCUBA booties.”

Sizing frustrations extend beyond water research, the rich range of responses to Mounts’ question shows, to lab coats, gloves, goggles, and shoes. If you can put it on your body to do science, it’s more likely to be best-suited for a man. Marianna Cervantes, a cultural resource management archaeologist in northern Canada, says she turns to the men’s section to buy shoes that have a steel toe and proper ankle protection for her work with oil and gas companies. She’s also struggled to find suitable work bottoms in the women’s aisles, for a relatable reason: “We need pockets in our pants!”