Practical solutions to combat racial disparities within veterinary medicine
One veterinarian addresses the need for diversity, equity, and inclusion by offering invaluable guidance on how to promote, hire, and retain a more diverse workforce.
I recently wrote an article discussing causes of the predominant whiteness in veterinary medicine. In case you missed it, approximately 89% of veterinarians in the US are White, whereas less than 2% are Black—of this number, 63% are women and 37% are men.1
Many articles and opinion pieces have discussed the need for diversity and inclusion across myriad disciplines.
Although the current climate seems more accepting of this dialogue, I often ask myself what value there is in highlighting a problem without also coming up with workable solutions. In the absence of writing a followup, as a change agent, I would be committing social malpractice. Having said this, I acknowledge there is certainly no shortage of thought pieces on this topic. We must create more conversations, action, and solutions—not less.
The good news is the solutions are doable and right in front of our faces. The bad news is the solutions are doable and right in front of our faces, yet meaningful change has not occurred. This article’s focus is on veterinary medicine but some, if not all, premises can be applied across multiple disciplines where diversity is needed or lacking.
Addressing the need for diversity
For any endeavor aiming to diversify the workplace to have a chance of succeeding, we need to first point out the overwhelming evidence supporting the benefits of diversity. Further, the people making decisions need to accept these data and embrace the positive effects of diversity including, but not limited to, improved workplace morale, increased innovation and creativity, client retention, improved production, and enhanced standing among business cohorts.
Once we value these facts, we then must take a forensic look at our individual workforces and begin exploring policies that will inch us closer to our diversity goals. You might be thinking, “What should the goals be?” Well, we should strive for our workplace demographics to closely mirror the melting pot society we live in, to the greatest extent possible.
Let us address the always-present elephant in the room whenever we talk about policies geared toward increasing diversity: affirmative action (AA). What inevitably follows the invoking of AA is the notion of “reverse racism.” Those who oppose the idea of policies geared toward increasing diversity usually subscribe to a “color-blind” ideology, in which privileged individuals deny or minimize the degree of racial inequality or explain contemporary racial inequality as the result of factors unrelated to racial dynamics.2
The negative connotation that comes with AA stems from the belief that you are sacrificing talent for diversity. Despite the obvious conflation, the two things are not mutually exclusive, and when framed this way a false choice is created. Research supports the opposite conclusion: When you have a highly homogenous workplace—that is, when diverse candidates are overlooked—you end up reaching further down into the talent pool of members of the majority group.3 Once you evaluate your organization for needs, you then need to come up with requirements and thresholds for individuals to meet to be eligible for employment. Once you have a robust group of qualified candidates, you must then make selections based on who will get you closer to your stated diversity goals.
The above approach is categorized as goal-oriented, as opposed to the more process-oriented approach that we see with traditional AA programs. Hiring unqualified candidates in any circumstance would be detrimental to your organization and set the candidate up for failure.
Next, we must incentivize or motivate people from the majority group to become personally invested in mentoring or sponsoring people from vulnerable populations. (When I say motivate, I am adopting GEN Dwight D. Eisenhower’s take on the word. He famously said, “Motivation is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it.”) The natural aversion people experience when they are made to feel they are being forced to do something is well documented. Therefore, having willing participants is likely to yield more favorable results.
Now that you have a deeper understanding surrounding the benefits of diversity and have acknowledged the effects of not having it, you can put a mechanism in place and criteria for potential candidates to meet. With that mechanism in place, you can make your choice from qualified candidates while keeping your diversity voids in mind. How does one seek out and find these diverse applicants and, as important, how can one retain them? The former can only occur if we go beyond slogans, catchphrases, and pamphlets—which are passive— to active measures.
Active measures require going to where diverse populations are and educating them about the benefits of joining your hospital or organization. A good place to start would be historically Black colleges and universities and early preparatory schools located in underserved communities. Once candidates are attracted, retention and nourishing must occur, and this is best done by the invested and incentivized individuals you have in and around your organization. In this way sponsors and mentors, often members of the dominant group, can give access to networks and resources that might otherwise be inaccessible.
Retaining a more diverse staff
Promoting Black veterinarians to meaningful leadership roles within the organization signals that there is a future in your company for minority employees beyond associate and middle management. This added investment and representation helps attract diverse candidates and is more likely to make minority employees feel they have an advocate in upper leadership and a person to voice their concerns to. Some organizations have opted instead to create positions to be filled by minority employees, positions usually dealing with the recruitment of minority candidates.
Although this is better than nothing and a step in the right direction, it creates 2 problems. First, there is the false sense that if the minority employee in charge and tasked with boosting minority candidate recruitment into the organization is unable to do so, then there must not be a problem, or nothing can truly be done. Secondly, it sends the message that the company does not value a person of color’s input outside of the inherent factor of race. If so, why not promote them to an already established, more impactful role within the organization?
A better approach to tackle diversity needs within organizations would be to form a task force consisting of many different voices from different backgrounds. Anything less suggests that diversity and inclusion is a problem for minority individuals alone to address. Remember, if we do nothing, the system is designed to yield results favorable to the dominant group (the status quo).
If change is to be realized, a thoughtful and vigorous approach is needed to counter the ubiquitous, pervasive nature of racism. The best way to do this is by programming ourselves to be active in our pursuits of a more diverse and inclusive profession.
Charles D. McMillan, DVM, is a veterinarian with IndeVets and is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He is a 2012 graduate of Tuskegee University School of Veterinary Medicine and has a keen interest in developing the public’s understanding of veterinary medicine, finding ways to foster a healthy veterinary workplace ecosystem, and exploring workable solutions to make veterinary medicine more diverse and equitable. You can find him on Instagram at @yourfavoritepetdoc or visit his website www.doctorthinker.com.
- US Census Bureau. Microdata. Accessed July 14, 2021. https://datausa.io/profile/soc/veterinarians#demographics
- Bonilla-Silva E. Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. 4th ed. Rowman & Littlefield; 2013.
- John F. Dovidio and Samuel L. Gaertner, “Aversive Racism,” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 36 (2004),18.