Women In Veterinary Medicine

The concept is mystifying to some.

How and why has the veterinary profession shifted so dramatically from a male-dominated field to one where women are edging ahead?

Consider these facts:

  • This year, women hold 78 percent of veterinary school seats, according to the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.
  • As of 2009, the American Veterinary Medical Association reported, female veterinarians outnumbered their male counterparts for the first time: 44,802 to 43,196.

Bonnie V. Beaver, DVM, Dipl. ACVD, a professor at Texas A&M University and a past AVMA president, credits Title IX, which in 1972 abolished gender discrimination in federally funded education. “The thought was that women would get married, start families and drop out of the program,” Dr. Beaver says of the mindset before 1972. “The profession needed veterinarians and it was thought that it wasn’t worth the risk to have a woman take a seat that could be occupied by a man. This was the thought in many industries.”

Since then, university administrators have tried to encourage a more diverse applicant pool, which in turn makes for a profession that more closely matches the community it serves.  With the recent decline in the numbers of male students, there is heightened interest in encouraging male applicants.

“We want men to continue to apply, but there isn’t an affirmative action for men,” says Joan C. Hendricks, VMD, dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. “Although we have efforts in place to attract a diverse pool of applicants and we think the profession would benefit from a more diverse group all around, we want excellence first, which is how applicants are viewed.”

Why the Change?

Statistics show that more women than men are graduating with bachelor’s degrees and more female graduates are seeking additional education as compared to men. Women have represented about 57 percent of the enrollment at U.S. colleges since 2000, according to the American Council on Education. Council researchers cite the tendency of women to outperform men in high school and college and men leaving college in disproportionate numbers.

“The U.S. population is almost 50/50. These statistics are telling,” says Anne E. Lincoln, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at Southern Methodist University.

“If you stop at a high school diploma today, you are basically set for a life of manual labor. It’s also interesting to see that as professions become more female dominated, men show a strong negative response and women do not have the same reaction.

“It isn’t known for sure why this is. It could be a perceived networking issue or that the profession will become less lucrative in general.”

Lincoln has written a paper, “The Shifting Supply of Men and Women to Occupations: Feminization in Veterinary Education,” which is scheduled for publication in the September issue of Social Forces, an international journal of social research.

Not all educational changes differ by gender. “An increase in tuition meant fewer male and female applicants,” Lincoln says, “and both responded negatively to the wage differences in veterinary medicine as compared to other medical professions.”

Show Me the Money

Another theory for the gender shift is that veterinary medicine just doesn’t pay enough to suit male tastes, that salaries in industries that become female dominated increase at a lower rate. The AVMA has reported that the median income of female veterinarians in private practice was $79,000 in 2007. For males, it was $109,000.

Some speculate that men who may have applied for veterinary school now target more lucrative professions, such as primary care medicine. Physicians earned, on average, $186,044 in 2008. Surgeons earned $339,738.

Statistics show that women are surpassing men in the number of applicants in those fields, too.

“The fact is that fewer people in general are applying to veterinary school and more women are going into other professions, too,” Lincoln says.

“Law schools, human medicine, dentistry and pharmacy are all experiencing higher numbers of female applicants and enrollees than in the past.”

Women at Work

The groundswell in the female veterinary work force could result in flexible schedules becoming the norm, says Sheila Allen, DVM, dean of the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine.

More women in the industry may mean wanting or needing additional veterinarians per practice if the female veterinarians are interested in a flexible schedule, Dr. Allen says.

“It’s disconcerting to see male practice owners expressing dismay when women graduate and start a family,” she says. “All owners should realize this is a phase in everyone’s life and it’s not a negative thing for the practice. Families make veterinarians more connected with the community and less likely to move.

“Don’t move on to a veterinarian who wants to work full time. Help the qualified veterinarian stay engaged in the profession and have a successful career. I think most men are getting this now.”

Some speculate that men are showing broader appreciation for women’s careers, which means female graduates may not have as much trouble with work/life balance as in the past.

“Each graduating class has new career expectations,” Texas A&M’s Beaver says. “Baby boomers are different from Gen. X, and now more than ever women want a stronger work/ life balance, which will affect how everyone practices.

“My first job offer after graduation carried significantly less pay than my male counterparts, and they were eligible for a percentage of emergency work,” she says. “I wasn’t offered that deal. I didn’t take that position. The one I did settle on was fair, but I can’t see that even being offered today.”

Beaver notes that while female professionals tend to marry male professionals, the opposite isn’t true. This may mean that women often deal with spousal jobs too, which may in the past have deterred them from pursuing leadership positions when families were involved.

“My husband introduces himself as my wife,” says Hendicks, the UPenn dean. “I know I have been fortunate to have a husband so willing to be the soccer mom and chauffeur. It is hard for working women without support from home.”

Though parental duties tend to fall more on women than men, according to a Texas Veterinary Medical Association survey, the feeling is that men are starting to regard female jobs as equally important and are making an effort to share in family responsibilities.

“It was very clear that women veterinarians had a higher role in child care than male veterinarians,” Beaver says. “This takes away from women’s ability to attend conferences and participate more in professional leadership roles. However, it was noted in the same survey that women tried to take care of their annual CE requirements in one week during larger conferences.”

At the 2010 North American Veterinary Conference in Orlando in January, 66 percent of the attending veterinarians were female. The AVMA reports that other large conferences are seeing higher female attendance rates as well.

Food Animal Medicine

One area in veterinary medicine that remains a male enclave is food animal medicine. The AVMA gives the 2009 breakdown as 82.5 percent male.

In the same year, 44.7 percent of veterinarians in companion animal private practice were male, 55.3 percent female.

“I don’t think there will always be as big a gender gap,” says Christine B. Navarre, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, the president-elect of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners. “Clients for the most part are very accepting of women working with large animals. Any change will make people question what to expect, but when they see you can do the job, they’re OK.”

Dr. Navarre, a professor and extension veterinarian at Louisiana State University, recalls some biased clients in her days as a practitioner.

“I went on a call with a male colleague to help a cow with a prolapsed uterus,” Navarre says. “When we got out of the truck, the farmer said, ‘This isn’t for a woman to see,’ and did not want me to help. It was very difficult to stand by as my colleague was able to help the animal and I was denied.”

She advises ignoring client comments. Clients sometimes prefer an older veterinarian—male or female—so “Take everything with a grain of salt and don’t carry a chip on your shoulder,” she says.

While skeptics will say large-animal practice is too dangerous for women and requires greater physical strength, chemical interventions have made it easier for both genders to control massive animals.

“There has never been a time when a veterinarian has wrestled a horse or cow to the ground,” Beaver says. “So saying chemical restraints helped women in food animal and large-animal practices is half true—it also helped men.

“One reason all types of diversity is important in veterinary schools is because enrollees who come from rural backgrounds or urban backgrounds tend to practice in those areas after graduation and we need more veterinarians in those areas.”

Ronald D. Welsh, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, Dipl. ACVPM, says dealing with large animals is more skill and finesse than strength.

“I’ve been in the industry for 30 years and last I checked, a man’s face smashes as easily as a woman’s,” says Dr. Walsh, a professor emeritus at Oklahoma State University. “Many veterinarians have been injured, and I’ve seen men and women leave large-animal practices due to injury. It’s not a gender issue.

“I’d wish more encouragement was given to all vet school applicants to go into food animal production.”

Gathering Statistics

Stacy Pritt, DVM, MBA, CPIA, of the Veterinary Medical Association for Women Foundation, says the female majority in veterinary medicine raises other questions.

“One of the issues that should be looked at closer is the risks that are very specific to the veterinary profession and more specifically to women veterinarians,” Dr. Pritt says. These include higher pre-term birth rates due to radiation and anesthetic exposure and job-related psychological effects such as depression, she says.

The foundation is sponsoring a 100-question survey for male and female veterinarians created by Adeleh Shirangi, Ph.D., MPH, a senior lecturer in the department of epidemiology at the University of Western Australia. The survey is in a review board’s hands and is expected to be released this summer. Results could be released in 2012.

Pritt says veterinary medicine will continue to evolve.

“I put together a big scientific conference and at the end, a male veterinarian wrote me a note saying he enjoyed the lecture and at the end noted that he liked my new haircut,” Pritt says. “This isn’t something that would be said to a man. Many times my male co-workers are thought to be my boss when I am actually their superior.

“It will take time to eliminate stereotypes, but the changes we can expect to see in the profession in terms of the industry are speculatory and unlikely to mean a quick evolution or vast change.” <HOME>

This article first appeared in the May 2010 issue of Veterinary Practice News

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