Draw your own curve in veterinary medicine


Women are redefining success for themselvesand our profession needs to do it too.

There's a lot of talk-some negative-about the gender shift in veterinary medicine. I may be a little prejudiced, but I think women are doing a bang-up job. Like their male counterparts, they're practice owners, associates, specialists, leaders and individual doctors with their own strengths and weaknesses.

That leads me to Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In, which extols women to jump in and take the bull by the horns. It's excellent advice for folks who want to be Sheryl Sandberg. For the rest of us-who maybe want a break from running full throttle at career advancement for a little while in order to live life-I'm here to tell you that veterinary medicine will be OK. And I'm going to use math and charts, because I'm a woman who loves math as well as shoes, and I also think more women should be saying out loud that you can like both.


Your career as “Logistical Growth Curve”-up, up and out

The typical career trajectory, as defined by the Sheryl Sandbergs of the world, is like a logistical growth curve: Start slow, gain momentum and then go out on top.

The elephant in the room is always this: Women sometimes choose to have babies. Unfortunately, from the moment I set foot on campus, motherhood was presented in a subtle but unmistakable light as an either/or phenomenon when it came to veterinary medicine. Women who took a year off to have a baby got sighs of “Too bad she took the spot from someone who really wanted it.” As if pregnancy opens up a small but permanent hole in one's brain through which all your knowledge drips out until all you're capable of is popping pacifiers in mouths and talking about soft-soled shoes. Some people think that if you really wanted to be a veterinarian, you wouldn't have had a kid-especially while in veterinary school.

Since graduating, I've been asked in job interviews whether I was pregnant or planning to become pregnant-which is just as illegal as you imagine it is. I've sat in meetings while seven months' pregnant and bloated from 12-hour emergency shifts, while the medical director's best advice to the interns was, “Motherhood and medicine don't mix. Mothers are terrible veterinarians.”

Veterinary medicine's message to women who want to have a family? If you want to be a good veterinarian, you come back to work two weeks later and find a good nanny. I support any woman who wants to do this. The key word is want. The women who don't want to do that? We're told they don't deserve to be here.


Your career as “Extinction curve”-you're in or you're out

How many women have been told in an interview, “I don't like hiring young women because they always have babies”-as if all women inevitably do this and those who do should be ashamed of their lack of commitment. Women in the profession in this view now occupy an extinction curve. Even the possibility you might one day want to have a baby is enough to keep you from getting hired in some places.

I can see how this attitude might make the women who choose not to have kids potentially a little irritated with the women who do. This is really counterproductive. But it happens. I've seen amazing women fight tooth and nail to hold on to their professional commitments full bore, despite the fact that it wasn't what they wanted to be doing, because they thought it was their only option. Then they quit, never to be heard from again. Women have been told you're either 100 percent in or you're a failure. That's a shame. Wanting a personal life-whether that means kids, a hobby, or a passion outside the field-is not only OK, it's pretty darn important when it comes to retaining one's sanity.

There's a reason veterinarians have one of the highest suicide and depression rates among professionals, and part of it is our own doing by having such distaste for those who strive to live a life outside the office. I promise you this: I am so, so much better at what I do now than I was when I was stressed, overtaxed and resentful. I am grateful once again to be a veterinarian.


Your career as a “Steady State Curve”

In the real world, populations that are stable (though not necessarily stationary) enter what's known as steady state-sometimes up, sometimes down, but maintaining height.

And who doesn't want stability? Mother Nature and the average veterinarian are tougher than we give them credit for. If populations can bounce back from plagues and droughts, surely individual veterinarians can manage to have a kid-or a vacation or a marriage or whatever other distraction comes with being human-without having to panic and toss away an entire career.

When I went back into general practice after two years of emergency medicine punctuated by two pregnancies, I hadn't done a routine spay in a year and a half. I was freaking out. I was convinced I possessed virgin hands and would mess up. I stood over the patient, my boss in the next room in case of mass emergency, and guess what? I did it as if I had been doing it just the day before. Muscle memory is an amazing thing.

You tune out to take care of things and come back better than ever. This is how leaders are born. By making a huge percentage of our field believe they don't have what it takes to succeed long term because they want a breather, we're killing off our future leadership.



Your career is the curve you want

When I was in veterinary school, my friend Carrie and I decided halfway through that we weren't really interested in being small animal practice owners, and by junior year our colleagues were taking bets on who was going to leave the profession first.

We both left-on our own terms. And eventually we both came back, which is more than I can say for some of my classmates, who opted out under the weight of unrealistic expectations. Today, I'm a writer, and now I'm exploring a new subcategory of medicine in hospice care. Carrie travels to the world's hotspots as a veterinarian and public health consultant.

Trying to cover gender issues in one article is like trying to sum up Tolstoy's War and Peace in a paragraph. The way we define success right now in the veterinary profession stacks the deck against a whole lot of people.

So let's redefine what it means to be a successful veterinarian: Find your own steady state, with your own fluctuations. Maybe you want time to hike the Appalachian Trail. Maybe you're being called to take care of an aging parent. Or maybe you want to focus all your energy on dominating the field of veterinary medicine. You deserve that too. Not everyone can or needs to “lean in” and be Sheryl Sandberg.

Dr. Jessica Vogelsang is a regular contributor to a number of publications and writes on her website, pawcurious.com. Her new book, All Dogs Go to Kevin, is due out this year.

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