Overcoming the hurdles: Promoting diversity within veterinary medicine
During his lecture at the Atlantic Coast Veterinary Conference, Dr Charles McMillan addresses what he refers to as the “the elephant in the room,” regarding the lack of diversity within veterinary medicine as well as providing workable solutions.
It is no surprise that the veterinary profession lacks diversity, as it is painfully obvious when we look around the veterinary classroom or the faculty at veterinary schools. Working towards creating diversity is a common discussion among veterinary admissions committees. But what is the full benefit of diversity to the profession, and how do we get there? Charles McMillan, DVM, a veterinarian at IndeVets in Atlanta, Georgia, presented at the Atlantic Coast Veterinary Conference (ACVC) a detailed view of why diversity is so important to the health of a profession, the hurdles we face to become more diverse, and what we can do to promote diversity within veterinary medicine.
While the veterinary client base is becoming more diverse, and the demographic of the United States is expected to become a minority-majority by 2040, the veterinary profession itself does not reflect this same diversity, but why does diversity matter? Research has consistently shown that diverse companies have significantly increased productivity, increased fiscal performance, improved decision-making, and the development of solutions for complex problems.1-3
McMillan explained that there are 2 types of diversity at play in these situations. Inherent diversity is used to describe traits we are born with (gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation). Acquired diversity is used to describe traits we gain from experience. It is important to promote both inherent and acquired diversity in veterinary medicine. But why do these aspects of diversity lead to innovation and productivity? Diversity impacts our way of thinking and our approach to problem-solving. A diverse population of veterinarians will see the same problem in different ways, broadening our approach to solutions, and promoting innovation.
It is a fact that children across all genders and ethnicities often aspire to become veterinarians. So why, if a diverse population of children aspire to become veterinarians, is the veterinary profession so lacking in diversity? McMillan explained several reasons for this and notes that these hurdles should be addressed. One such reason is the lack of diverse role models in the veterinary profession. He references a past article he wrote in dvm360® in which he notes that prior to the establishment of Tuskegee University in 1944, the 6 veterinary schools that existed did not accept Black students.4
Without a greater number of role models in one’s own ethnicity, the inability to see “yourself” or your ethnicity in a profession you may aspire to be, is discouraging and impactful and often leads prospective students to other careers. Society compounds this effect, either consciously or unconsciously, by allowing stereotypes depicting who should or should not be a veterinarian, to discourage marginalized prospective students and cause them to abandon their aspiration to become a veterinarian.
Even for the underrepresented students who continue to follow their aspiration to veterinary school, McMillan explained, data from the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) confirmed that selection bias impacted the admission process.5 Disadvantaged groups during the admissions process included underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, women, Pell Grant recipients, first-generation college students, and candidates from rural communities that aspired to return to practice in rural communities.
This selection bias during the veterinary admissions process has both direct and indirect influences. Not only could bias affect the selection process directly, through either conscious or unconscious bias, but underrepresented minorities have been shown to have more difficulty finding mentors and obtaining research or animal experience, which indirectly impacts their evaluation based on selection criteria.6 The financial burden of veterinary education may widen this gap further and discourage applicants from applying or accepting offers. In terms of selection bias, McMillan also noted that even though women comprise the majority of the veterinary profession in the United States, white male applicants remained more likely to receive an offer of admission, than any other group.6
There is often a requirement of certain numbers of hours of animal experience, and the application process is so competitive that mentorship can be advantageous. Because underrepresented groups often have great difficulty obtaining animal experience hours and finding mentors, we are inadvertently limiting the prospects of these groups simply by the nature of the intrinsically biased admission criteria. This is not to say that these criteria are unimportant, but they are a factor influencing the lack of diversity, and solutions need to be found that do not result in selection bias, either directly or indirectly manifested, during the application process.
McMillan also discussed with attendees that for those underrepresented veterinarians that are currently in the profession, retention is also a concern that impacts diversity. Minority veterinarians are at risk of feeling disenfranchised and unheard. In some cases, minorities are passed over for promotions, underpaid, and less likely to be recruited. Diversity in leadership instead creates an environment where underrepresented minorities can feel a sense of opportunity for advancement in the profession, beyond the associate level.
Knowledge is the first step, but how do we achieve more diversity within the profession? McMillan described an active approach, which involved creating an environment of inclusivity by making it easier for members of marginalized groups to seek careers in veterinary medicine. Practices and policies can help guide this change. Mentorship and sponsorship programs should be available to help minority applicants early in the process, and active recruitment of minorities should occur at the preparatory stage of education. McMillan reminded attendees to nurture and protect prospective students and insulate them from society’s stereotypes, bias, and prejudice that can further marginalize underrepresented students. We should intentionally strive to have the diversity of the profession match that of the society and client-base it serves. We must aggressively enact change to promote diversity in our profession. In the end, our profession will be better for it.
Dr Packer is board certified in neurology by the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine and is an associate veterinarian at BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital in Lafayette, Colorado. She is also the founder and owner of the Pre-Veterinary Mentoring Group, LLC, through which she provides mentorship for pre-veterinary students during their path to veterinary school, and is the founder and owner of The Pocket Neurologist, LLC, a vet-to-vet teleconsulting service.
- Cloverpop. (n.d.). White Paper: Hacking Diversity with Inclusive Decision Making. Retrieved from Cloverpop: https://www.cloverpop.com/hubfs/Whitepapers/Cloverpop_Hacking_Diversity_Inclusive_Decision_Making_White_Paper.pdf
- Hunt, V., Layton, D., & Prince, S. (2015). Why diversity matters. Retrieved from McKinsey & Company: https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Business%20Functions/Organization/Our%20Insights/Why%20diversity%20matters/Why%20diversity%20matters.ashx
- Lorenzo, R., Voigt, N., Tsusaka, M., Krentz, M., & Abouzahr, K. (2018). How Diverse Leadership Teams Boost Innovation. Retrieved from BCG: https://www.bcg.com/en-us/publications/2018/how-diverse-leadership-teams-boost-innovation
- McMillian, C. (2021).Why so much whiteness in the veterinary profession?DVM360 Volume 55, May 2021.
- Lloyd, W., J., & Greenhill, L. M. (2020). AAVMC Admissions: Report of 2019 Student Survey Analysis. Retrieved from AAVMC: https://www.aavmc.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/2019-Admissions-Analysis-Monograph.pdf
- Lloyd, J. W. (2019). Evaluating the Depth of Quality in the 2018 AAVMC Applicant Pool. Retrieved from AAVMC: https://www.aavmc.org/assets/Site_18/files/About_AAVMC/applicant_pool.pdf