Equal opportunity

equal opportunityVeterinary medicine has undergone a dramatic feminisation since the 1970s, but are female vets afforded the same opportunities as their male counterparts? Angela Tufvesson reports.

In 1906, Bella Bruce Reid became the first female vet to be educated in Australia. She was the only student in the class of five to graduate from Melbourne Veterinary College that year, and immediately set up a practice in the city’s east. Fast forward to today and almost 80 per cent of veterinary science graduates and more than 60 per cent of practitioners are female.

Professor Vanessa Barrs, an academic from the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney who earned her vet science degree in 1990, says there were similar numbers of female and male students when she was at university. Since then, women have tipped the scales and now dominate the profession.

According to the 2015 Veterinary Practitioners Board of New South Wales annual report, which supports earlier research by the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA), there are now significantly more female vets than males aged under 50 in both metropolitan and rural areas. Men only outnumber women in the older age brackets, where retirement looms. Interestingly, these figures are being replicated in other developed countries, with similar statistics emerging in the US, UK, Canada and South Africa.

Very little research has examined the precise reasons why women are drawn to veterinary careers at the expense of other health professions like dentistry and (human) medicine, but an increasing industry-wide focus on domestic pets and their female owners is thought to be a significant contributor.

“It’s very much a caring profession, so it does tend to be females who relate to that type of profession,” says Dr Debbie Neutze, policy manager at the AVA. “If you look at other caring professions like nursing, they tend to be dominated by women.”

At the other end of the gender spectrum, many commentators point to low salaries and a lack of career structure as reasons why men shun the profession. “Veterinary science salaries are lower than those of other health professionals like dental or medical practitioners,” says Prof Barrs.

“And if you compare veterinary science to, say, medicine, there are so many opportunities for specialisation in medicine. While that’s increasing in veterinary science, and certainly the number of specialists that have enrolled and registered in NSW has increased in recent times, there are fewer opportunities for structured career progression in veterinary science. It may be a reflection of the fact that veterinary science is not a government-funded resource.”

But even though the gender pay gap in Australia continues to hover at around 18 per cent, Dr Neutze says vets are paid virtually the same hourly wage regardless of gender. “When you look at starting salaries over the last 10 years, on average women earn about 97 per cent of what men do,” she says. “So there’s a difference between male and female salaries, but when we look at hourly rates it’s not significantly different.”

The reason why overall salaries differ is often because many women take time out of the workforce to care for children and may return to work after an extended absence in a part-time role. Dr Neutze says female vets work on average 8.5 fewer hours per week than men, while data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that one third of vets work part-time.

“Almost 80 per cent of veterinary science graduates and more than 60 per cent of practitioners are female.”

This is reflective of a broader trend in the Australian workforce, with research by the Australian Institute of Family Studies revealing that while 36 per cent of mothers work part-time, only 9.5 per cent of fathers work reduced hours .

“There’s a whole range of norms for men and women about gender roles that make it harder for women at work,” says Lisa Geerlings, a senior facilitator and executive coach at Women and Leadership Australia. “There’s an expectation that women will do more caring work at home and take more time out of their careers to manage that, or take on a double workload.”

The pace of female take-up of veterinary positions in Australia is expected to slow due to an increasing number of part-time roles. Yet, the AVA reports the number of female veterinary science graduates is expected to remain above 70 per cent for the foreseeable future, and as such the gender composition of the profession will continue to shift.

Plus, the cohort of older male vets who own practices, sit on boards and occupy other senior positions will continue to age and retire. This means there will be more opportunities for women to dominate the upper echelons of the industry as well as the overall composition.

So, it’s no stretch to conclude that making the industry more amenable to women is in the best interests of both female vets and the profession as a whole. But what needs to be done to make it happen?

Geerlings says that although there’s a perception that senior positions are best filled on merit, establishing quota systems is the best way to overcome unconscious gender biases. 

“In order to assess people on their merits we have to know that we have biases—everyone does—and we have to find ways to actively challenge them,” she says.

“I hear women say they don’t want to be promoted just because of quotas and they want to get there on their own. I hear organisations say they want to be fair, and fairness means choosing people based on their merits. But all the research about recruitment practices suggests that we’re not as meritorious as we would like to think we are, and there’s a whole range of other reasons playing out in our recruitment decisions. Meritocracy is a bit of a myth that we are pulled into that holds us back.”

Dr Neutze agrees: “Being top-heavy as far as people with experience goes, we tend to see more male vets taking on roles on boards and in leadership positions, but we need to be conscious that they’re not the future and it’s important that we proactively encourage women to take up those leadership roles.”

Prof Barrs says closing the gender pay gap, encouraging more women to take on practice ownership and appointing more women to leadership positions will help to ensure equality of salary and opportunity for female vets. And creating more structured career paths will help to attract both women and men to the veterinary profession.

“Going forward we need to look at career structures after graduation for veterinarians, to make sure that applicants who are considering studying veterinary science can see the number of different opportunities that getting a degree in vet science holds,” says Prof Barrs.

Ultimately, Geerlings says creating ongoing opportunities for women is key to the success of vet practices—now and in the future. “Any type of diversity brings diversity of thinking and perspective, which helps organisations to perform better,” she says. “All of the research in the corporate world says that organisations with greater levels of diversity and inclusion perform better than their competitors.”

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