Veterinary gender discrimination: A real and serious problem

September 20, 2019

Volume 50, Issue 11

A UK study found that in the veterinary profession, women are overlooked for promotions and often seen as incompetent by overtly sexist clients.

Oh, brother. Despite the consistent rise in numbers of female veterinary professionals, research suggests a culture of masculinity still exists. Women are increasingly dominating the veterinary profession, but gender discrimination remains an uphill battle, according to a recent study published in the Veterinary Record. Study findings revealed that female veterinary professionals are moving up the ranks at disproportionate rates than men.

Although women make up 76% of UK veterinary graduates, according to the researchers, they are often employed as associates versus medical directors or practice co-owners, according to a Lancaster University release. Researchers also found that many women deal with blatantly sexist clients who insist that a male specialist treat their pets. Even worse, practice managers are failing to address these gender discrimination issues.

“Veterinary medicine is still entrenched in a masculine culture,” said co-author David Knights, Distinguished Scholar in the Department of Organization, Work and Technology at Lancaster University, in the release.

“Both sexes subscribe to a narrative of females having to choose between a career or a family, a situation exacerbated by the culture of long working hours that militates against women who subscribe to the culture of caring, with these constraints giving the impression of a lower commitment to the organization,” he said.

Family first: a complicated matter for female vets

Researchers from Lancaster University conducted 75 interviews with both male and female veterinarians in the UK. They spoke to practitioners in junior and senior roles, ages 25 to 63.

Although questions did not focus on gender-related issues, interviewees frequently brought up the topic directly and indirectly. The team found that those in positions of power as well as victims of gender discrimination commonly held the belief that women would not seek promotion, as they only wanted to work part-time.

“On the surface, it could appear that the trend for fewer women climbing the hierarchy is because they sacrifice career for family,” Knights said. “But it is much more complicated than this stereotypical view implies.”

Women, especially those in their early careers, reported that they were treated as if they had limited competence and credibility and were automatically presumed to be potential mothers, which was viewed as problematic for their careers long term. According to the study, women who have children or go part-time are seen to have chosen family over careers and often no longer considered for promotions.

The nightmare of sexist clients

One female farm veterinarian interviewee shared that one of her female clients demanded that a male veterinarian come out to see her because she was not happy with the treatment the female veterinarian had delivered. Another interviewee said she felt the need to prove herself to clients.

“Such blatant sexism is rarely challenged by senior vets,” said Knights. “This is partly because they are oblivious to the problems, but also -even when they are aware-they fail to intervene for fear of upsetting clients who perpetuate the sexism. This lack of support can create a downward spiral, where women vets begin to doubt themselves, threatening their confidence early in their careers.”

Knights added that, “Even when we came across examples of senior vets who appeared to be sensitive to gender issues, there was often a reproduction of the chauvinistic attitudes being criticized, with one speaking of the need for female vets to use their charm to make up for a lack of physical strength.”

So, what is the solution to sexism in the veterinary profession? Researchers didn't have certain answers but pointed out that UK veterinarians do appear to be leaving the profession or going part time. These gender issues are especially troubling, as retention is an increasingly serious problem in the veterinary field, according to the release.

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