As a veterinarian practicing in the second decade of my career, I’ve been fortunate to have been continually surrounded by strong female leaders and mentors in the profession. However, that certainly hasn’t always been the case and may still not be the case for many aspiring young women in the industry. In fact, as recently as 1960, the US Census reported that 98% of the veterinary profession was male. However, more recent polling is showing that to be rapidly changing and is in stark contrast to the current year.
The original impetus for more females in the profession started with Title IX which abolished gender discrimination in federally funded education. When this ground–breaking law passed in 1972, the original societal thought was that, even though women would apply to these programs, they would soon get married and drop out to stay home and raise children. But that myth was quickly dispelled and a new trend in the face of the veterinary industry slowly began. Besides the legal change, there was also a shift in cultural thought about women becoming physicians and veterinarians, and this has become the “norm” for acceptance ever since.
Theories Behind The Gender Shift
The American Council on Education states that since 2000, women have represented about 57% of enrollment at US colleges, and more females are seeking additional education as compared to men in the same position. This statistic itself could explain the increasing number of applicants at veterinary schools.
According to the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, the number of women entering the profession surpassed men in 2007, and now, approximately 78% of veterinary students are female. A current study out of the Department of Sociology at Southern Methodist University suggests that male applicants may even be deterred after seeing the number of women applying and enrolling.
Another theory speculated that females would be more willing to secure a lower salary as men target other medical professions, such as human medicine or surgery. According to the AVMA, Female graduates have historically been paid $2,406.97 less than male graduates in all areas of the industry. However, statistics quickly prove that ALL professional universities, such as law school, dentistry and pharmacy, are experiencing higher numbers of female applicants.
The Paradigm is Shifting
While we see an absolute increase in the number of females graduating and applying to veterinary schools, perhaps the area of clinical practice is becoming more appealing to the working mother. Many business owners are understanding the change in the workforce paradigm.
Female graduates want a stronger work/life balance and creativity or flexibility in their hours or schedule. They also want to consider positions that support and work well with employees through maternity leave and support working mothers through having space for nursing demands at work, childcare emergencies and health insurance options for families.
Rather than overlooking a prospective candidate for one with more traditional concerns, owners and managers are now investing in these women, recognizing that establishment of family allows veterinarians to be more connected to the community and to grow “roots” in the practice. These women cannot be successful in their role without better support within and outside of the clinic with childcare and home management—and creativity in three–day work weeks or nontraditional hours can be incredibly helpful. Additionally, there can also be a unique camaraderie to clientele; we know that over 80% of clients at small animal practices are women themselves, and this relatability can help to grow a business and client base.
In food animal medicine, still a traditionally male–dominated focused area of practice, chemical interventions have allowed women (and men) to work more efficiently and safely around patients with tremendous physical strength. This is a very important area of advancement, not only regarding the safety of all professionals, but also for the emotional health of these animals. Being able to take care of these animals without significant physical demands or even limitations has opened more opportunities for women to work in all areas of the industry.
Perhaps the biggest change has been in the leadership presence within the US veterinary schools. According to Veterinarian’s Money Digest, in 2012, only 28% of the administration in leadership roles were women. When measured recently in 2017, that number was up to 42%, and climbing. However, we still have work to do in trying to reach gender equality within organized veterinary medicine. Currently, leadership roles within this genre are only about 25% women. Additionally, leadership roles within organized veterinary medicine groups such as the AVMA, WVC, NAVC and AAHA still are predominantly men.
So, what does the future hold for female veterinarians? While there have been significant advances in recent years, we still face many challenges including the growing concern of suicide among women of this profession and the decreasing number of female students graduating with aspiration of ownership. The continued and imperative need for mentorship within the profession will need to be an important focus.
Organized, female–focused programs such as the Women’s Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative (WVLDI) are helping women to do just that. Through this group, women are being given tools to overcome their own personal barriers to advancement and creating strategies to help bridge the salary gap between genders. Other larger platforms like Fear Free© have an executive council with over 50% women and have large industry partners like Zoetis with female CEO’s who are trying to share knowledge and wealth in different arenas to inspire and encourage women to follow similar paths.
It will be exciting to see what changes occur in this next generation and even more exciting to be part of the wave.+