Leaders of the pack

Julie Kumble, co-author of Leaders of the Pack

A new book by two US academics examines the under-representation of women in leadership roles in the veterinary profession—and what to do about it. By Heather Vaile

This is the kind of book many female Gen X vets will wish someone had written 25 years ago. It explores the issues surrounding the gender imbalance in leadership roles in the veterinary profession, and offers women practical tips and strategies for dealing with common obstacles and challenges to career advancement.

Although it has been meticulously researched and draws on the findings from over 200 interviews, Leaders of the Pack comes across as compassionate and conversational. The authors have included profiles of women of different ages and backgrounds who have experienced a variety of pathways—and setbacks—to success, giving the book a warmth and authenticity that readers will love.

The book is the brainchild of Julie Kumble, a US writer and expert on women’s leadership issues, and the late Donald F. Smith, Dean Emeritus at Cornell University, an ‘Ivy League’ research university in New York.

“Don and I came from very different backgrounds and actually met by chance,” says Kumble. “I had a background in women’s leadership at a women’s foundation, and Don was the Dean Emeritus at Cornell University and had been in the veterinary profession for many, many years.

“He had seen the trends of women entering the profession in great numbers but saw that there was still a huge gap between women and men at the top levels. And from our two different perspectives, we just had so much to talk about and explore and investigate. So that’s how our two interests came together.

“We wanted to find out if there was a way to accelerate change, to make leadership more closely reflect the demographics of veterinary medicine.”

At first glance, this book looks like it has been written for female vet students and early career practitioners, but delve a bit deeper, and you’ll see that it’s valuable for female vets of all ages. For example, one chapter looks specifically at the benefits of having mentors right through your career and how taking on leadership roles for ‘the greater good’ (e.g. through charity or community work or One Health initiatives) can help you take your career in unexpected and rewarding new directions, whatever your age.

The book also gives senior veterinary administrators in universities a lot to think about, especially in terms of how well they prepare young students, particularly young women, for the realities of the workforce and different stages of their careers. In highly competitive fields, such as veterinary medicine, it’s becoming increasingly clear that non-clinical skills (also known as ‘soft skills’) like communication, creativity and resilience are also essential tools for practitioners today.

Ms Kumble explains that “we did a lot of research on the factors that contributed to the leadership gap in veterinary medicine, like cultural, historical and gender biases. And we looked at these barriers in the four areas of: veterinary practice, organised medicine (e.g. the associations and membership bodies), academia and industry.

“We then examined how these hurdles affect women differently to men—economically, psychologically, looking at gender bias, and so on.”

“I thought we’d see more stereotypes of the strong woman leader—the laser-focused, roll-up-your-sleeves type that didn’t have any doubts; but really, the typical leader, if there is such a one, is someone who had a lot of doubts along the way—but still said ‘yes’ to opportunities.”—Julie Kumble, co-author, Leader of the Pack

Although the book is written from a US and not an international perspective, there are obvious parallels between the feminisation of the veterinary workforce in the US and demographic changes occurring in the veterinary workforce in Australia.

For example, in 2013 the AVA released a report citing that:

  • There were just 471 female vets in 1981 compared to 3,629 full-time equivalent (FTE) female vets in 2008 in a workforce of 7,849 vets.
  • Female vets made up 83 per cent of the increase in the total number of vets between 2001 and 2006.

Common obstacles to women seeking out leadership positions, such as the ‘imposter syndrome’ or perfection complex, cross geographical borders and will resonate strongly with many professional women in Australia. It may also provide comfort to those who weren’t even aware that this phenomenon is so common, that psychologists have given it a name.

“Women often have a tendency to compare themselves negatively to other female vets in the profession who are the ‘superstars’,” says Kumble. “But women are achieving great things at all levels. There are many unsung heroines who are not in high-profile positions but their work is having a huge impact. And that is a message for younger readers of the book: you can make an impact in this profession at many, many levels.”

Leaders of the Pack also examines the possible reasons for salary variations between male and female practitioners which “differ greatly in some fields, but especially in private practice”.The authors suggest that women are generally far less comfortable in salary negotiations, often willing to accept lower paying jobs that offer more flexible conditions, and tend to be more likely to undercharge clients than their male counterparts. However, the book does not link falling salaries across the profession to the increasing feminisation of the workforce.

In the Australian context, variation by income levels of vets by gender has been attributed to women and men often having different roles in the practice, i.e. female vets are more likely to be employees, females being more likely to work part-time, and men being much more likely to own a practice than women.

Unlike many other leadership books, Leaders of the Pack directly addresses happiness and wellness as important concerns, not just for individuals but also for the wider profession. It points out that leadership goals should not become another pressure point for female vets already carrying a huge load on their shoulders, and they caution female practitioners about wanting to have everything all at once.

“You can have it all but you just need to pace yourself and not take on too many things at once,” says Kumble. “Young people don’t always understand the truth in that cliché. Happiness has got to be central to it all.”

When asked whether she and Smith were surprised by any of the findings from the book, Kumble says yes.

“I thought we’d see more stereotypes of the strong woman leader—the laser-focused, roll-up-your-sleeves type that didn’t have any doubts; but really, the typical leader, if there is such a one, is someone who had a lot of doubts along the way—but still said ‘yes’ to opportunities.”

Leaders of the Pack – Women and the future of veterinary medicine is available from Purdue University Press through Booktopia, Amazon and a variety of other online retailers.

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