A journey to Antarctica on a ship full of women involved with the sciences saw Dr Kate Clarke’s attitude to her veterinary work renewed, reinvigorated and re-energised. By Frank Leggett
It’s fair to say that earlier this year, Dr Kate Clarke was feeling increasingly disengaged from her career as a veterinarian. She was working part-time as a small animal vet at the Eureka Veterinary Hospital in Ballarat, Victoria, but after 20 years on the job, disillusionment was starting to set in.
“The prospect of seeing out my career as an experienced associate vet felt frustrating and demoralising,” says Dr Clarke. “I had more to learn and give but I was disillusioned by the options for vets and I was considering leaving the profession.”
Dr Clarke was in contact with other female vets in regional practices and she soon learnt that she wasn’t alone in the way she felt. As vets’ mental health and the professional attrition rate reflects, the problem is widespread even though relatively little is said about it.
“For a while I wondered if I was the only vet struggling with how to maintain career development and make a difference without becoming a financial partner in a practice,” says Dr Clarke. “However, I soon discovered that many other women vets felt the same and were also considering leaving the industry. It seemed such a waste—this incredible resource of passionate, experienced, multi-skilled, caring people ready to just walk away.”
Dr Clarke was at a crossroads in her career. She had a desire to embrace personal team development and to improve big-picture problems—she just wasn’t sure how to do it. Then she heard a story about Homeward Bound on the ABC.
Homeward Bound is a leadership initiative that aims to increase the influence and impact of women in the decision-making process worldwide. It is working at building a global collaboration of women with scientific backgrounds.
“I literally had a dream in October of 2014,” says Fabian Dattner, co-founder of Homeward Bound. “I saw myself on a ship in Antarctica with women who had science backgrounds. That dream came true very quickly and in December of 2014, we took 75 women to Antarctica on a leadership journey.
“Kate was part of the second group of women to make the journey. We now have women involved from 33 nations and are fully booked until 2020.”
Homeward Bound is based around three propositions that need to be addressed:
l The practice of leadership is collapsing globally. At present, the global trust index is sitting at about 30 per cent—or 70 per cent of people don’t trust their leaders
l The continuing and intransigent lack of women visible in leadership.
l Our planet is in an environmentally perilous state.
“When I researched Homeward Bound and their goals, my female self-doubt loomed,” recalls Dr Clarke. “Then, when I learned I’d been selected to take part in the largest ever female expedition to Antarctica, the ‘imposter syndrome’ really kicked in! I wondered if I actually belonged on a program alongside UN advisors from Kenya and Mexico, a science policy advisor to the US government, a Fulbright scholar revolutionising breast cancer therapy and a Rhodes scholar whose physics team won last year’s Nobel Prize. Being a part-time associate vet from Ballarat felt a bit too average!”
Dr Clarke spent weeks on an old research vessel with a group of women who work in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine). Obviously, women who are attracted to going to the end of the earth are strong individuals who are up for a challenge. The isolation, the close quarters and the shared experience were instrumental in building a network of trust and faith in each other.
In most veterinary practices, the leader is invariably the person who owns the business. However, effective leadership is much broader than that and should be embraced by everyone on staff.
“The Homeward Bound experience really highlighted that everyone can be a leader,” says Dr Clarke. “On the ship, you’re making decisions and having discussions where everybody’s voice is equally valuable. Everyone brings a different perspective and a different angle. That’s the same in a vet clinic. Everyone is doing their job to the best of their ability and they should all have the opportunity to make decisions and effectively lead.”
Unlike most of the professions involved in the program, the veterinary field is predominantly female, especially when you include the nursing and reception community. While there’s an increasing awareness of the female vet demographic’s needs in terms of logistical support, there also needs to be discussion around the specific challenges women face and the different strengths they bring to leadership.
“While veterinary science has a significant number of females in the profession, the data shows that the vast majority of practices are still owned by men,” says Dattner. “We need to explore why this is so and the cost of that. Businesses that are led in equal measure by women and men tend to have more flexible work practices, better customer relationships, better stakeholder relationships, and are more profitable. Homeward Bound does not diminish the important contribution of men but explores if there is a more equitable way forward.”
Dr Clarke agrees. “It’s time we look at the research around the different leadership styles of men and women. We need to ensure we are getting the best from our existing and future human resources. It’s not a case of whether authoritative or collaborative leadership is better—they’re just different. Understanding how we lead ourselves and others, and how we can do this more constructively, reduces stress for leaders and the led, and gets the most out of our teams. This is how we improve engagement, retention, ideas and profitability in the veterinary industry.”
So how has the experience affected Dr Clarke’s attitude to work and the veterinary profession? “Even though my focus is still with patients and clients, it’s helped me determine my own values and encourage consideration of our team’s motivations,” says Dr Clarke. “It’s important to openly acknowledge the balance of choices we make to accommodate personal relationships and professional wellbeing. It has given me a renewed sense of optimism about what we can change and improve.
“I attended last year’s AVA conference where [UK vet and businessperson] Alison Lambert talked about retention and recruitment problems within the profession. Alison highlighted that employees want an inclusive, supportive, empowering workplace culture. I’d like to think that I can help others work towards that.
“Homeward Bound has empowered and energised me about what I do. Where I once would have said, ‘Oh, this is demoralising’, now I think ‘Right, here’s something that I need to change.’ I feel very positive.”
So far, Dr Clarke is the only Australian veterinarian to undertake the Homeward Bound journey. To join, visit homewardboundprojects.com.au