Women in veterinary leadership: An uphill battle?


A new study shows that leadership is still seen in masculine terms.

In the 1960s, when feminism was on everyone's minds, many women believed that discrimination limited their opportunities, especially in relation to leadership roles. Fifty years later, a new Northwestern University meta-analysis shows that leadership continues to be viewed as culturally masculine. The same is likely true in veterinary medicine.

The analysis found that women are viewed as less qualified or less natural in most leadership roles and, secondly, when women adopt culturally masculine behaviors often required by these roles, they may be viewed as inappropriate or presumptuous. Could the same thing be happening to women taking the reins of veterinary medicine?

These reactions to women leaders reflect gender stereotypes. Previous research has found that predominantly “communal” qualities, such as being nice or compassionate, are associated with women, and predominantly “agentic” qualities, such as being assertive or competitive, are associated with men. It is these agentic qualities that are believed to be essential to successful leadership. Because men fit the cultural stereotype of leadership better than women, they have better access to leadership roles and face fewer challenges in becoming successful in them.

The implications of the meta-analysis are straightforward, researchers say. Cultural stereotypes can make it seem that women don't have what it takes for important leadership roles, thereby adding to the barriers that women encounter in attaining roles that yield substantial power and authority.

The good news for women is that studies show that the view of leadership as strictly masculine is weaker now than it was in earlier years. The tide is turning. Will it be fast enough for today's generation, especially in woman-dominated fields like veterinary medicine?

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