NASA spacewalk stumble

NASA spacewalk stumble

Space suit diagrams

When it comes to celebrating diversity in science, technology engineering and maths (STEM), few organisations have the profile and the reach of NASA. To the army of activists, authors and academics working to write women back into the story of science, NASA is something like a fairy godmother. With a film, or a collection of LEGO figures, they give our cause the impetus that takes it into the mainstream.

If we hoped that, by 2019, we would be past arguing about women’s place in science, we were destined to be disappointed. The scientific community here in Europe is still simmering over comments made just a few months ago by a former CERN employee, stating that “physics was invented and built by men, it's not by invitation.” So when NASA announced that they would round off Women’s History Month with an all-women spacewalk, it felt like a timely statement of solidarity from an icon of the physical science establishment.

Who could have guessed that this critically important endorsement of women in science and technology would have tripped over its own ill-fitting PPE?

Well, any woman who’s ever worked in a STEM environment, probably! Every woman who’s had to roll up the sleeves on their lab coat; every woman who’s made do with steel toe-capped boots two sizes too big; every woman who’s had to forego fieldwork because the mandatory safety equipment was not designed with women in mind.

Our 2016 report (One size does not fit all) shows that women right across Prospect sectors face an everyday struggle with PPE that was designed for men. The majority reported that it hampers their ability to do their job. We have heard from experts at the Health and Safety Laboratory about how ill-fitting PPE, from oversized gloves to respiratory filters, increases workplace risk. And in some cases, like this NASA spacewalk, women’s professional activities and engagement are limited by the lack of suitable equipment.

Come on, NASA… this is not rocket science!

In fact, women’s PPE is a great subject for a branch campaign. The problems and their consequences are easy to observe and measure. As a union we have access to great research and expert advice. We have the weight of health and safety law on our side. And very often the solutions are as cheap and simple as highlighting the issue, or signposting an alternative supplier.

But a lack of women’s PPE is a symptom of a deeper problem: of a workplace that was not designed to fit women. The STEM workplaces that Prospect serves are typically male-dominated: mostly male; mostly led by men; and certainly traditionally male. There is a default assumption of a male worker, not just in the kit they need, but in their cultures and behaviours too. It makes women vulnerable to second-class treatment, to gender pay gaps, and to sexual harassment as well as to poorly-fitting equipment.

Prospect campaigns holistically for equitable treatment of women and other workplace-minorities. Our work on women’s PPE is just one facet of this. Find out more about our equality agenda, and let us know how you would like to be involved.

Sue Ferns

Sue Ferns


  • In the very early 1970s, I started as an apprentice in a Royal Dockyard and amongst the new entrants was a sole female. We were all marched down the retail store and issued with a pair of used but clean overalls however they simple did't fit the female apprentice without rolling the legs and sleeves up many times. How everyone laughed, except the poor 17yo girl who, in hindsight, was humiliated. 

    Fast forward 46 years and a female friend of mine was issued with PPE on joining a shipyard abroad – overalls baggy in places, legs rolled up and safety boots that require two pairs of thick socks to get them to fit. Seeing photos of the best fit they could issue, I was reminded of my first day and relised that nothing seems to have changed for females over a long period when so much has been done to improve safety. 




    28 March 2019 15:23

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