Sexual harassment and discrimination in 2018really?!

February 13, 2018
Portia Stewart, Editor, Team Channel Director
Portia Stewart, Editor, Team Channel Director

Portia Stewart is a pun-loving editor who spends her days arguing the differences between cats and commas (commas are a pause at the end of a clause, while cats have the claws at the end of the paws). She is a minion to two cats and a dog.

Female veterinary leaders ask, 'Why are we still dealing with this?'

It's 2018, folks. And female veterinary leaders like Robin Downing, DVM, DAAPM, DACVSMR, CVPP, CCRP, CVA, MS in clinical bioethics, want to know why we're still, as a culture, mired in issues of discrimination, harassment and assault.

In the 1970s, Dr. Downing was, as she describes it, woke. Like many women on the precipice of entering college in pursuit of a professional career, she was aware of the feminist movement at the time, led by such luminaries as Bella Abzug, Kate Millett and Gloria Steinem. But Dr. Downing had no idea at the time how the topics of sexual assault, gender bias and discrimination might play out in her own life (more on that in a minute).

These days she's saddened (we are too) that we haven't made more progress on gender issues. After all, it's 40. Years. Later.

You see, Dr. Downing was sexually assaulted when she was 15. A swim team instructor attempted rape, and she fought her way free. Her parents pressed charges.

"I felt like I was really lucky because, you know, it didn't go any further than an attempt. But I was on the ground underneath this guy," Dr. Downing says. "And I happened to be a pretty strong person physically. So I was able to escape out of the situation before something completely irrevocable happened. And I look back now and realize that what happened was irrevocable."

She's right. Because the message we give to women before, during and after events such as this, as well as their own experiences and emotions, create scars that reveal themselves in times of strain. The damage sexual assault creates has the power to reverberate throughout our lives, long after we've conquered the event.

"The day I had my hip replaced, the first Friday in October 2016, I had surgery early in the day. And I had a spinal rather than a general, so I didn't have the postoperative fog. I had to wait for my legs to wake up before they got me up and walking, but I was really comfortable and knew that I would be in the hospital until Sunday," Dr. Downing says. "But I was good with that, and so there we were watching the news, and on comes the breaking story about the NBC tape that had been leaked."

The tape Dr. Downing refers to is the Billy Bush interview featuring Donald Trump that broke in October 2016. As she heard the now-infamous bus interview play out, Dr. Downing suffered a flashback of her own assault.

"So there I was. I wasn't even in a drug-induced state … but I had a flashback of my experience right there in my hospital bed to when I was 15 years old and this 18- or 19-year-old swim instructor sexually assaulted me and attempted a rape," Dr. Downing says. "I was 58 years old at the time, and it might as well have been the day before yesterday."

Today Dr. Downing owns Windsor Veterinary Clinic and The Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colorado. Through the 1980s and 1990s she fought battles for gender equality in vet school and as a young graduate facing state veterinary boards. A question she heard routinely: "Are you going to have babies and quit veterinary medicine? Why should we give you a seat in school-or a license in our state-if you're going to take a spot away from a man who needs to support his family?"

This is years after the women's movement, people. Come on.

In the early 1990s, as a young female veterinarian attempting to secure a loan, Dr. Downing watched her local bank president laugh in her face when she attempted to secure financing. Eventually she sought financing out of state with a banker her father knew. She, a doctor of veterinary medicine, had a fatal flaw of anatomy that made it impossible to secure a loan. She was a woman.

A little more than 10 years ago, Dr. Downing knew it was time to expand. She had a vision for The Downing Center for Animal Pain Management. She approached her local bank again. This time they were willing to loan money to her-but at a rate much higher than prime and higher than the terms Dr. Downing's accountant had counseled her to look for. She again reached out of state for financing.

How are we going to solve this? We've got to follow Dr. Downing's example. We've got to keep fighting. Keep talking about it. Dr. Downing fought back against assault and discrimination, and her weapons have been strength of character and a willingness to lead.

Let's face it: The era of men with big bellies hanging over their rodeo belt buckles wearing bolo ties telling young women they have no business in veterinary medicine has passed. And let us all wave a fond farewell with a sigh of relief.

Let's face it: The era of men with big bellies hanging over their rodeo belt buckles wearing bolo ties telling young women they have no business in veterinary medicine has passed. And let us all wave a fond farewell with a sigh of relief.

For Dr. Downing, freedom came in practice ownership. "What's been my experience in the workplace post-graduation? It's been great, because I don't have a boss. I am the boss. So I've been really fortunate," she says.

Dr. Downing's experience is one shared by other women in the profession, who wonder why we took so long to start a conversation on sexual harassment and gender issues. Consider this story from a dvm360 reader:

My only surprise over this issue is that it has taken so long to get more attention. My case began in 1978. The supervisor harassed all the female employees in the whole department, and he took a special interest in harassing me, perhaps because I stood up to him. I could push him off me but he never gave up trying, putting his hands on anyone whenever he wanted and using times when one was trapped in a position, like on the microscope, to pretend to be looking too, cheek-to-cheek with the female victim. 

He would go behind someone sitting in a chair and press his pelvis into her back, rub her shoulders, sometimes down her back and working around toward her breasts, all under the pretext of giving a massage. No one but me tried to fight him off. I told him repeatedly to keep his hands off me, and he just laughed. His response was to call me into his office and inform me that I'd better "catch on." I asked what else I needed to do to perform my job and he told me I knew the answer to that. I went to the personnel department and was told I could file a claim, but that I would lose my job!

I got a new job after two years of repelling his advances, and as soon as I left I sued the son of a bitch. It was very gratifying. People came out of the woodwork to support me, and they were all MEN!

Bridget Heilsberg, DVM, an equine veterinarian, owner of Crown 3 Veterinary Services in Whitesboro, Texas, and president of the Women's Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative (WVLDI), says the key to changing behaviors and attitudes about gender and sex is to keep the conversation alive with persistence and hard work.

"You can't change multiple generations' worth of thinking overnight. It's going to have to happen slowly over time," she says. "And we're going to have to recognize it if we keep bringing it to the forefront, keep addressing it, keep calling it out as unacceptable behavior. Maybe not next year-in fact, probably not next year, maybe not in 10 years. But hopefully in 100 years it's no longer anything to talk about."

Ultimately, while it's natural to feel frustrated and saddened that we have such a long way to go, women leaders remind us to stay positive and work together for real change.

"I'm an optimist, and I always feel hopeful that times of turbulence and times of conflict are the seed for increased consciousness and growth, and I think men and women working together well in creative ways can really advance the veterinary profession," says Elizabeth Strand, PhD, LCSW, director of veterinary social work at the University of Tennessee. "I think having continued dialogue and having the courage to speak frankly and to have solidarity and accountability within gender groups can be very functional and healing."


Portia Stewart is team channel director for and the editor of FirstlineRead her #MeToo moment here. Do you have a #MeToo moment to share? Email