Despite the Odds: Essays on Canadian Women and Science


440 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography
ISBN 0-919890-96-2
DDC 500'.82





Edited by Marianne G. Ainley
Reviewed by Hannah Gay

Hannah Gay is a professor of History at Simon Fraser University.


This volume contains essays of three types: historical surveys of
women’s roles in a number of scientific and technical areas;
historical biographies; and essays on contemporary issues. Together,
they give an interesting Canadian perspective on a more general problem
and can be recommended both to the general reader and for use by
students of women in science and technology.

By now it should be no surprise that the scientific accomplishments of
women are often forgotten and unrecognized. Some of these essays go part
way to rectifying this regrettable historical situation. There are some
poignant biographical pieces. For example, Maude Abbott (1869–1940), a
teacher at McGill University’s Faculty of Medicine, had to have her
first conference paper read by a man; though she was internationally
recognized as an expert on congenital heart disease, and developed a
medical museum for instruction, she was not given academic promotion.
Other essays tell similar tales. Until very recently, marriage often
ended these women’s career aspirations, partly because institutional
rules forbade the employment of wives. Ironically, one of the points
that emerges here is that women who have succeeded professionally have
had strong male mentors—often a husband, though more frequently a
father or unrelated professor—who, in the eyes of society, have
legitimated their work. Family influence is especially notable in the
applied sciences such as agriculture and horticulture.

One pattern of concern for today is that the small size of the female
scientific community is not just related to sex difference at the entry
level. The number of women progressing to careers in science and
technology is far smaller than the number graduating with degrees.
Further, the very best female students have higher seepage rates than do
the rest (the opposite is true for men). Once again the existence of
male mentors is a factor in who stays in science. But collaboration with
men can be a mixed blessing since, when successful, men tend, often
without justification, to gain credit at the expense of their female

One essay on the current situation indicates that things are changing
for the better, albeit very slowly. But if the examples from the past
given here are any guide, such changes will have to be continually
fought for.


“Despite the Odds: Essays on Canadian Women and Science,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 21, 2024,