Where Are the Women?

There were no women geologists at the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) in the 19th century. In the 1800s many people thought that women did not have the strength required to cross the rough terrain and carry rock samples. They also thought that it was not proper for women to be alone in the wilderness with men who were not relatives. It is hard for us to understand such thinking today.

This did not mean that women were not involved in geology. Women were simply not often recognized for their work or given the same opportunities as men. In the 1800s Mary Anning was an expert in fossils. She collected fossils on the southwest coast of England from the time she was a child. It is believed that the tongue-twister "she sells seashells by the seashore" is about her. Many of her fossil finds ended up in museums or private collections, without her being credited as the discoverer. Mary Anning also had a solid understanding of her discoveries. She is now recognized for her contributions to paleontology at a time when it was just becoming a science.

In the 20th century, Alice Wilson was the first female geologist in Canada and the first to work at the Geological Survey of Canada. She paved the way for other women geologists to follow.

Photograph of a female geology student with rock hammer in the field, Kenogami Lake, Ontario

Geologist on cobalt conglomerate, Kenogami Lake, Ontario

Photograph of Sharon Smith in an ice cave, Nunavut, 2001

Sharon Smith in an ice cave, Nunavut, 2001

Photograph of a female geologist taking notes in the field, Bowser Basin, British Columbia

Geologist at work in the the Bowser Basin, British Columbia

Alice Wilson (1881-1964), geologist, paleontologist

Photograph of Alice Wilson, the first female Geological Survey of Canada geologist, bending over a rock

Alice Wilson, first female GSC geologist

Alice Wilson was the first female geologist in Canada and the first to become a member of the Royal Society of Canada. As a child she was interested in the fossils found in the limestone formations near her Cobourg, Ontario home. Due to ill health, she left university before finishing her final year. Once she was well, she got a job in the Mineralogy Division of the University of Toronto Museum, looking after and organizing mineral specimens.

In 1909, Alice Wilson went to work for the GSC labelling specimens and keeping records of them. Later on she asked to be allowed to work in the field, but was refused. A woman in the wilderness working alongside men was considered unthinkable. She was allowed to go on short trips to study the Ottawa-Saint Lawrence Valley. For the next 50 years, she studied the area on foot, by bicycle and car. At the time, the Geological Survey gave cars to its male employees but would not give one to Alice Wilson, so she bought her own. She later gained recognized as the most expert scientist on the paleontology of the Ottawa-Saint Lawrence region.

Photograph of Alice Wilson in her office looking through a microscope

Alice Wilson in her office

Although the GSC gave its employees paid leave to further their studies, Alice Wilson's request to go back to university was refused. In 1926 she was allowed to apply for a scholarship, but when she won the scholarship she was again refused leave. The Canadian Federation of University Women fought for her and eventually she was allowed to take a leave from work to further her doctoral studies. She received her PhD degree in 1929 at age 49. She returned to the GSC, but was passed over for promotions and was not given the professional recognition she deserved.

After retiring at age 65 she continued her scientific work until months before her death at age 83. She wrote and published a book for children about geology, taught at Carleton College (now Carleton University) and took her students into the field. When she died, Alice Wilson was recognised as a respected geologist, an internationally known paleontologist and an inspiring teacher. She opened the doors for women in what had previously been a man's world.

Helen Belyea (1913-1986), geologist

Photograph of Helen Belyea

Helen Belyea

Helen Belyea was the only female GSC geologist to work with men in the field before the 1970s. She was one of two geologists sent to monitor the oil discovery in Leduc, Alberta, in 1950. She spent the rest of her career trying to understand the Devonian rocks in western Canada. She was the first woman to win the Barlow Memorial Medal for an economic geology paper and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. She became an Officer of the Order of Canada, as well as an honorary member of the Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists.

Catherine Hickson (1955 - ), volcanologist

Photograph of Catherine Hickson at the Poas volcano, Costa Rica, 2004

Catherine Hickson at the Poas volcano, Costa Rica, 2004

A rock collector as a child, Catherine Hickson grew up to be one of the world's foremost experts on volcanoes. Her interest and talent was encouraged by her professors at the University of British Columbia, where she earned a PhD. No longer a student herself, Catherine Hickson has given workshops to teachers, even taking them into the field, so that they can pass on what they learn to their students.

Ann Phyllis Sabina (1930 - ), mineralogist, gemmologist

Photograph of Ann P. Sabina

Ann P. Sabina

Good at math and physics, Ann Sabina got her Bachelor of Science from the University of Manitoba. In 1952, the GSC hired her for her knowledge and training in the new area of mineralogy known as x-ray diffraction. Using the GSC's mineral collections, Ann developed national standards for the use of this technique in the study of minerals.

With the popularity of geology increasing among the general public, Ann was asked to write guidebooks on the geological features found along Canada's major highways. So from the 1960s onward, Ann has spent many summers on the road in her car, mapping out the interesting rocks and minerals. Thanks to Ann, many women geology students were able to get some field experience by assisting her in this work. Today, Ann's "Rocks and Minerals for the Collector" series is among the GSC's bestselling publications. Ann also became a gemmologist, was a co-founder of the Canadian Gemmological Association, and taught university courses in mineralogy and gemmology.

Today, there are many female research scientists working on a wide variety of topics at the Geological Survey of Canada. Women such as Sharon Smith and Margo Burgess (permafrost), Carol Evenchick (bedrock geology and petroleum resources), Beth McClenaghan (mineral exploration) and Louise Corriveau (mountain-building and metamorphism) are just a few examples.