Louis Leakey selected three women to study the great apes, they inspire others today

Primatology is an area of science with one of the highest proportions of women to men Caitlin Starowicz, Producer, She Walks with Apes

When it came to choosing three people whom he’d send to live with the great apes, legendary paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey picked three women — very consciously, according to Jane Goodall — to enrich the field of primatology.  “I was really lucky,” she says, “because Louis Leakey believed that women would make better observers in the field than men. He thought that they would be more patient.”

In She Walks With Apes, a documentary from The Nature of Things, we explore the research of these three women — Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Canadian Biruté Galdikas — who were selected to observe and study primate behaviour right in the apes’ jungle habitats.

Jane Goodall as a young woman

Jane Goodall in the field as a young woman

Goodall says that women may have evolved to be keen observers because they tend to play a larger role in child-rearing: “To do that well, you have to be patient, you have to be able to understand the wants and the needs of a little creature before it can talk and, also, you need to be very observant of relationships in the … family group or the tribe, because you want to keep your child away from a family member who’s in a bad mood or something like that. So all of those attributes, if [this theory is] true, would tend to make women better.”

Primatology is now an area of science with one of the highest proportions of female to male scientists. But it’s also an area that’s fraught with hardship.

Scientists have to spend months with the animals before they grow accustomed to a human’s presence, and fieldwork is often carried out in countries that are war-torn or politically unstable. In the latter case, however, being a female researcher can have its advantages. “Being a woman helped me in practical ways,” Goodall wrote in a 2018 essay for Time. “White males were still perceived as something of a threat, whereas I as a mere woman was not.”

Julia Badescu is one scientist who followed in Goodall’s footsteps. Today, she studies chimpanzees in Uganda. “Primatology has benefitted [in] many ways from lots of women coming into the field. Because of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas … they set the stage for women to pursue these studies more,” she says.

Julia talks about how she dreamed of living in the forest with animals as a young girl.

For a long time, men were dominant in the field, and the women who worked under male supervisors often studied behaviours like killing, hunting and male dominance. Badescu says that women brought different perspectives to their study. “Female questions might tend more to female dominance ranks, understanding how females relate to each other, different strategies of females when it comes to copulations and trying to get pregnant … do they prefer to copulate with specific individuals or do they kind of copulate with everyone to confuse paternity?”

She feels that to gain the most scientific perspective, other groups underrepresented in the field should become primate observers, too. “What are the questions a disabled person might ask? What are the questions a person of colour might want to ask? Or a gay woman or man might want to ask? A lot of these are being ignored, I think."

Of course, Badescu isn’t alone in following the path of one of Leakey’s three renowned researchers. By transforming the primatology, the Trimates — as Fossey, Goodall and Galdikas are known — became role models for countless young women who might not have otherwise pursued science.

Baby orangutans get a second chance at life at a Borneo orphanage
Biruté Galdikas is a famous primatologist that you’ve probably never heard of

Galdikas, who has studied orangutans in Borneo for almost 50 years, attributes the three women’s success to determination. “Because we stayed, we found out things about the great apes that would have been impossible to find out in other ways. So, I think it’s that accumulation of data, of staying, that helps serve people as a role model,” she says.

“Young men have many more role models,” Galdikas continues, “[and] their role models are much more diverse. You can think of first astronauts, explorers, musicians, researchers, movie directors … they're all men, at least initially, right? So, I think men have a much wider universe to choose from, while women have a much smaller universe, and that may account for why people look at us, girls look at us, as role models.”

Whether or not Leakey was right in his theory about women tending to be better observers in the field, his choice of the three Trimates ended up changing the study of primatology forever. And in turn, those pioneering primatologists opened doors for generations of young women.

Watch She Walks with Apes on The Nature of Things.

Available on CBC Gem

She Walks with Apes

Nature of Things