The reason? Because there weren't enough spacesuits for women.
It’s a timely example that also perfectly explains why Tracy King, a writer and producer from Birmingham (now living in London), is working to get a particular book in front of all 650 members of parliament (MPs) in the UK.
The book is Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez — the feminist activist most famous for getting Jane Austen’s image on the new £10 note — and it’s all about highlighting the fact that our world really isn’t designed for women.
According to its blurb, the book “exposes the gender data gap — a gap in our knowledge that is at the root of perpetual, systemic discrimination against women, and that has created a pervasive but invisible bias with a profound effect on women’s lives.”
That might sound unbelievable, but the NASA spacesuit fiasco is a great demonstration of women being held back because what they need to move forward just doesn’t exist — because no one seems to have thought women might need spacesuits.
As highlighted in the book, there are lots of other examples of how our society is shaped around the idea of what’s known as the “default male.” That essentially means that everything in our societies has been created with men in mind.
As promised, I'm crowdfunding to send a copy of Invisible Women to every MP. Change in law, policy and regulation comes from the top, help me educate those in power about the gender data gap: https://t.co/RkxqcHXuQF via @gofundme— Tracy King (@tkingdot) March 7, 2019
“Cupboards are too high, my phone’s too big,” King tells Global Citizen. “And yet I’m average height and average hand size for a woman. And it had never occurred to me before that it’s not me being too small, but that the world is designed for a male body.
“Sometimes it’s an inconvenience, like a phone, but at the other end of the spectrum it can be life-threatening,” she adds.
There are many examples in the book of how the gender gap can cost women’s lives in the context of natural disasters or conflict.
“We didn’t have firm data on the sex disparity in natural disaster mortality until 2007, when the first systemic, quantitative analysis was published,” reads one section of the book. “This examination of the data from 141 countries between 1981 to 2002 revealed that women are considerably more likely to die than men in natural disasters.”
“It’s not the disaster that kills them,” explains Prof. Maureen Fordham, from University College London, in the book. “It’s gender — and a society that fails to account for how it restricts women’s lives … In Sri Lanka, swimming and tree climbing are ‘predominantly’ taught to men and boys; as a result, when the December 2004 tsunami hit (which killed up to four times as many women as men) they were better able to survive the flood waters.”
The book adds: “There is also a social prejudice against women learning to swim in Bangladesh, ‘drastically’ reducing their chances of surviving flooding.”
For King, there are “a million examples” that are similar — “but it highlights that it’s the same issue for all women everywhere: failure to acknowledge that women don’t navigate the world in the same way that men do.”
It’s for these numerous reasons that King launched her crowdfunding campaign, raising funds to make sure that every MP in the UK has no excuse to ignore the data laid out in Criado-Perez’s book.
King points out that the gender data gap and the “default male” concept “is not something that I personally can do anything about, but our members of parliament, anyone who’s involved in policy or regulation, here or in the developing world” can.
“It’s not the public whose minds you need to change, it’s the decision makers,” she continues. “It’s all about policy, everything in this book. It’s about something that was designed without considering women.”
“If you’re going to build a building, put in more toilets for women than men,” she adds, as a basic example.
While she’s realistic about the fact not every MP who receives a book will read it, she says “the point is the publicity, the noise, the peer pressure of doing a crowdfund.”
For King, there was no lightbulb moment when she realised she was a feminist and what that meant, but there was a moment when she realised she had to start doing something to help bring about gender equality: the death and rape threats that Criado-Perez received just for campaigning to get a woman’s face on a banknote.
“It doesn’t matter how big or small the thing you’re trying to achieve is, if you’re a woman and you’re sticking your neck out, someone will try to cut your head off,” she continues. “What on earth is wrong with asking for a woman to be on a bank note that people send death and rape threats because they’re so outraged?"
This prompted a realisation for King that, to make real change happen in terms of how women are treated in society, we need to reshape our world so that everything considers women to the same extent as it considers men.
And to achieve this, it means educating the people who shape the world about the gender gap — and make them realise that women need to be as front and centre as men.
“Absolutely any MP who sits on a committee, shadow ministers, everybody needs to be thinking about this first, before you begin to plan a damn thing,” she says. “Is this discriminating or excluding 50% of the population?”
But King highlights that, while the campaign centres around Criado-Perez’s book, it’s “about all books, and all women who are doing analysis and pointing out biases.”
“So yes, I picked on one book to give to MPs,” she says, “but it’s about way more than one book and more than MPs, it’s the whole zeitgeist that we’ve had enough.”
And giving out the books is most definitely just the start for King.
“That’s just the beginning,” she says. “Then it’s about, what are you going to do about it?”