Sandy Middleton, a retired professor in the zoology department at the school and one of the few former male colleagues who had befriended Innis Dagg (most of the male professors didn’t speak to the women who were faculty, she says) explains that Innis Dagg ran into the faculty’s old boys network, where four or five men held undue influence. That collision demolished what would have been a brilliant career.

Innis Dagg’s still-fresh sadness in these scenes was deeply moving to viewers at the Quad cinema in New York, where I recently saw the film. When Innis Dagg suddenly loses her composure in front of the camera, many women in the audience clearly felt the same mix of frustration and sorrow for her, and possibly for themselves. Through Innis Dagg’s story, they were sent back to that moment when they, too, had to acknowledge that entrenched prejudice had won. On the way out, I heard one woman explain to a friend, “You know, the same thing happened to my mother.”

The story isn’t over

The rest of the film documents parts of Innis Dagg’s life in exile from the giraffe-studying universe until she is rediscovered by a group of female zoologists who invite her to speak at a conference. The Woman Who Loves Giraffes, which made its world premiere at the Atlantic International Film Festival in Halifax in 2018, and has been making the festival rounds and picking up awards ever since, has made “the Jane Goodall of giraffes” a mini-celebrity. The universities that rejected Innis Dagg a lifetime ago have issued apologies or bestowed honorary doctorates. In December she was made a member of the Order of Canada.

At the age of 87, she is once again working in the field she left behind, by asking documentary audiences across the US and Canada to donate to one of three conservation efforts: Reticulated Giraffe Project, Save The Giraffe, or the The Wild Nature Institute. She has been astonished by the admiration her story has elicited and says she hopes to drive some of that interest toward a species that, as zoologists in the documentary note, does not get the same attention as primates, which we can more easily relate to. (Find a list of screenings for The Woman Who Loves Giraffes in New York, Los Angeles, Washington DC, and elsewhere on the film’s website. It’s also available for streaming in Canada.)

After what became a years-long dispute with Guelph University, Innis Dagg had dug into the issue of gender discrimination in higher education, banding together with other women to investigate disparities, and to co-author a book about sexism in Canadian universities, the lack of funding for female researchers, and bias in textbooks.

Does she think things are better for women now? “They’ve improved a little, but I wouldn’t want to say a lot,” she says when we meet at New York’s Hotel Giraffe, where she’s staying. “It’ll always be more men.” Research from Canada  and the US supports her pessimism.

Anne Innis Dagg and director Alison Reid.
Anne Innis Dagg and director Alison Reid.
Image: Camelo, the car, and Innis Dagg's former work station.

Mary Dagg,  Innis Dagg’s only daughter, who joined her mother for a 2015 trip back to South Africa—documented by Reid’s crew—is touring with the film’s entourage. She says many of the post-screening conversations involve listening to other women recount their own experiences of being similarly thwarted in their professions. She believes her mother is lucky her story is being told, but suggests an untold number of  other women in math and science, particularly, share the psychic pain that darkened that middle period in her mother’s life.

Reid recalls one woman standing up to express her frustration after a screening at Guelph University. “I was a student here at the Guelph in the ’70s and I feel so ripped off that I did not have you as my professor, Anne,” she said, according to Reid. “Because I went to Africa, and there were certain things I wanted to do, and I wasn’t able to accomplish them, and if I had you as a professor, it would have been different.”

“The world missed out on the work she would have done on giraffes over those years,” Reid continues, pointing to Innis Dagg. “The students missed out on having her as a professor. Extrapolate that to all the other women. What would the planet be like? Maybe we wouldn’t be where we are? It’s so…,” she says, searching for the right word. “It’s so infuriating.”

It’s also simply heartbreaking.

🖋 Sign up for The Memo from Quartz at Work

A dispatch from the world of modern work. Learn how you can help create a productive, creative, and compassionate work culture.