My late mother, Virginia, graduated from college when she was 16 years old. My oldest sister, Cheryl, was number one in her class at Yale. Maybe that means we have a genius strain in our DNA, but in a way it’s a comeuppance for me and the men in my family, showcasing how many of the people are a lot smarter, more competent, and more confident than me, are women.
My mom was a farmer’s wife in Southern Idaho, and was the smartest person I knew growing up. I didn’t need Merriam Webster’s Dictionary. I had Virginia. If I needed help with studying, I didn’t need CliffsNotes Study Guides. I had Virginia. Point is, I grew up under the wing of a genius, one who also tended to own any room she was in.
In junior high, I read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and the World Book Encyclopedias, cover to cover. I remember most of the people mentioned were men. Also, in junior high, I subscribed to U.S. News & World Reports and Forbes magazines, and every CEO, COO, or CPO featured in an article was a man. Katherine Graham didn’t become CEO of The Washington Post Company until 1972, the year before I graduated high school. Today, women are still underrepresented and underestimated in corporate leadership, making up only 4.8 percent of CEOs in S&P 500 companies, despite making up 44.7 percent of total employees. This is a travesty.
In my life …
I have three important women in my life. My beloved wife of 42 years, Teresa, 35-year-old daughter, Mikkel, and 11-year-old granddaughter, Reagan. They know I fight for human rights, diversity, and equality. But just like in having to choose between whether I like cats or dogs more (it’s dogs), if forced to choose which of the three movements I prioritize and would fight the hardest for, it’s equality.
I’ve been blessed to literally have seen the world. I’ve been in 89 countries, all 50 states, and all seven continents. I have never visited anyplace in the world where women were treated equally. Yes, I’ve seen great improvements in the number of women moving into positions of leadership and influence in my lifetime, but we still have so far to go.
In 2016, Fear Free was moving from a vision to a dream with deadlines. At the time, Fear Free was incubating inside of AAHA (for which we’re in its debt) and the CEO, Dr. Mike Cavanaugh, and COO, Michael Blackwell, found an amazing COO for Fear Free, Ruth Garcia. Ruth had just completed her MBA from Denver University. Ruth is so amazing, I would love to say I found her, mentored her, and helped create the person folks are wowed by today, but that’s not the truth. Yes, Mike and Michael hired her, but I swear, Ruth’s a gift from above.
Over 40 years in veterinary medicine, I’ve been successful in spite of myself. Luckily, with a tendency to practice, “Ready, Fire, Aim,” and leadership skills that resemble a squirrel crossing the road, I’ve managed to have more successes than failures. Fear Free would be a failure without the leadership of Ruth, the single smartest and most talented woman I’ve ever seen. (Sorry, Mom.)
Let’s not stop there. We have an amazing woman leading our profession, Dr. Janet Donlin, the executive vice president and chief executive officer of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Veterinarian Pamela Nichols is president of the Board of Directors of the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA). A newer dear friend, Dr. Molly McAllister, is chief medical officer for Banfield Pet Hospital. I’m part of a new startup, TopVetsTalkPets.com (TVTP), and our CEO is an amazing veterinarian and entrepreneur, Dr. Natalie Marks.
Two of the principal people in the development of Fear Free and with TVTP are two more colleagues, boarded veterinary behaviorist, Dr. Lisa Radosta, and super-successful practice owner and leadership expert, Dr. Julie Reck. Revered veterinary practice management consultant, Louise Dunn, who I affectionately refer to as “Get Er’ Dunn,” has helped me in so many ways professionally that I should be paying her a consulting fee. Finally, my longtime head of marketing, social media, and writing partner, Christie Keith, is not only smarter than me, she knows more about veterinary medicine than I do, and she’s not a DVM!
The times are a changin’
While at age 66 my body is slipping, my mind is as sharp as ever (more good genes, as my Mom was still the “Sunday New York Times Crossword Queen” up until she drew her last breath at age 89). I think I’m just as smart as I always was; what’s changed is that I’m a lot wiser. What I’m seeing, and being part of, is a world/profession where I’m no longer even close to being the smartest, most competent, confident, compassionate person in the room or on Zoom. No, I must take second seat to an amazing team of women who deserve to be front of the table, at the podium, handling the checkbook, making most of the key decisions that impact my personal and professional life. Thank you, God!
Ruth is a better leader, manager, strategist than I ever was. I never miss an opportunity to let others know that, and I tell her myself that every time I can, without looking too sappy. It’s a joke, in a way, but when we’re in meetings together, I let her take the lead in representing us, and I’m the one who gets her coffee. Often at meetings, like with AVMA, I, as a male, am in the tiny majority in the room. I watch and listen to these women and am so glad that finally, after centuries—decades—of suppression, they are getting a chance at equality.
If you’re like me and are willing to recognize that being in a place of relative privilege doesn’t actually mean you’re the smartest person in the room, that you’re not necessarily the best leader in the company or organization, that your role is no longer at the front, but in a supporting role, here are some tips for helping you make the transition:
1) Take the cotton out of your ears and shove it in your mouth. I’ve always liked the sound of my own voice and am “brevity challenged.” What I realized about two decades ago, was that by being “loud and proud,” I was drowning out other voices. It’s a process, but I’m so much better at just listening and asking questions now.
2) Seek the meek. None of the women I’ve mentioned in this article are “shrinking violets.” Oh no, they always let their voices be heard. People with this characteristic don’t need wisdom drawn out of them. But there are people who shrink from commenting or contributing in a group setting for fear of being embarrassed. I make it a point to engage with them in a relaxed setting of their choice, and we always take time to warm up before diving into opportunities or challenges that I’d like their input on.
3) Outspoken doesn’t mean “bitch.” Growing up in rural Southern Idaho, I specifically remember any of the women who were teachers, elected officials, or community leaders who weren’t afraid to speak up and go toe-to-toe with men if necessary were typically considered “bitches.” Men with the same qualities were admired. I know we still have that bias far too often today.
Finally, don’t pat yourself on the back too hard for standing up for equality. It’s how things should have always been, and it’s to our shame that equality is still more an ideal than a reality. In a profession numerically dominated by women, we have a golden opportunity to reverse that. Let’s not stand in the way of achieving the dream!
Marty Becker, DVM, writes every other month for Veterinary Practice News. He is a Sandpoint, Idaho, practitioner and founder of the Fear Free initiative. For more information about Fear Free or to register for certification, go to fearfreepets.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.