Despite there being more women who are vets, sexism in the veterinary profession is yet to be eradicated, writes Jessica Mudditt.
In decades past, Australia’s veterinary profession comprised a largely homogenous group of people: white males.
“At that time, women were often seen as peripheral to the profession,” says Dr Rosanne Taylor, Dean and Head of School at the Sydney School of Veterinary Science. “They were portrayed as lacking the commitment, resilience, or expertise to perform the full range of veterinary work.”
Dr Taylor says that when she began her career 35 years ago, her innate abilities were often questioned. “Was I strong enough? Could I drive a large vehicle? Was I prepared to work hard and for long hours? Was I serious about staying in the profession? These are the questions young female vets faced in the 1970s and ’80s.”
Happily, times have changed, and with them perceptions of women’s professionalism and skill sets. Some feel that overt sexism is far less common than it used to be, largely due to it no longer being a male-dominated profession: 80 per cent of vet science graduates and 60 per cent of practitioners are now female, according to the Australian Veterinary Association’s (AVA) 2016 Veterinary Workforce Survey.
However, because the change has occurred across generations, the profession is top heavy with men: most older vets are male, most employers are male and there are more men in senior positions. Women, meanwhile, make up the majority of early career vets. This gender imbalance between young and old adds an ageist dimension to the sexism: with older male clients or practitioners denigrating younger females, says Dr Jane Lord, a lecturer in small animal practice at Charles Sturt University.
“For example, if there’s a young female as well as a young male at a practice run by an older male, it could become a boys’ club where the older male favours the male and ignores the female,” says Dr Lord.
Dr Anne Fawcett, a lecturer at the School of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney, says that barriers to the career progression of female vets need to be addressed. These include the lack of childcare at conferences, limited opportunities for part-time roles for parents, and financial barriers to practice ownership.
While it’s true that men now play more of a role in parenting than they did in the past, women still do the lion’s share of childcare—and therefore have less time to devote to their careers. Greater workplace flexibility would produce better outcomes for women, particularly during their early-to-mid career phases.
For example, “it would be great if clinics could be associated with nurseries,” says Dr Paula Parker, president of the AVA.
“It would be even better if laws allowed nannies to be employed directly by small businesses so that play areas could be set up by these businesses and the kids could hang out in a room and do activities and parents could have rostered visiting time,” she adds.
Then, there’s the problem of women being noticeably less likely to assume leadership roles in vet-related businesses.
“We don’t understand why, however it is concerning, because our leaders shape the future,” says Dr Taylor.
The CEO of Diversity Australia, Steven Asnicar, says that technology can play a role in helping a broader spectrum of society access networking events and leadership conferences, where vital networking connections are often made.
“Many young women in the past were afraid in the workplace because of unwanted advances and harassment. I have had those experiences and know the burden it places on the recipient of that treatment.” Dr Rosanne Taylor, Dean, School of Veterinary Science, University of Sydney
“We’re moving into a high-tech world where the conferencing of the future will allow people to have input without having to physically travel there, and this will vastly improve access to opportunities,” says Asnicar.
Mind the (pay) gap
Women in Australia earn significantly less than their male counterparts, and the veterinary profession is no exception.
“The 2016 Australian Veterinary Workforce survey demonstrated a gender pay gap even when confounding factors such as age were controlled,” says Dr Parker. “For instance, for those who are presently 45-49 years old, the median hourly rate reported for women was around 25 per cent lower than for men.”
The national full-time gender pay gap across all ages and industries is 15.3 per cent, according to an August 2017 report by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.
“The gender pay gap includes direct discrimination as well as indirect factors such as unconscious bias,” explains Lisa Annese, CEO of Diversity Council Australia.
Tackling any type of prejudice head-on takes courage. Rather than suffering in silence, it’s worth reaching out to someone in the workplace for support. This person may be able to serve as a moderator.
Dr Taylor says that approaching the perpetrator through dialogue rather than confrontation is the best way forward, as it’s less likely to damage relationships.
“Being judgmental of others isn’t necessarily helpful to creating change,” says Dr Taylor.
When it comes to sexual harassment, however, Dr Taylor is emphatic that a zero tolerance approach must be taken.
“Many young women in the past were afraid in the workplace because of unwanted advances and harassment. I have had those experiences and know the burden it places on the recipient of that treatment,” says Dr Taylor.
The Diversity Council’s Annese wants young vets to remember that employers have responsibilities to prevent and respond to workplace bullying, harrassment and discrimination. “If an employer does not take action, contact the Fair Work Commission or the Australian Human Rights Commission,” she says.
One way to avoid an unpleasant work environment is by getting to know potential employers: find out how staff and clients are treated and ask questions. If possible, speak to past employees.
Employment is a two-way street, says Dr Lord: while students in particular are eager to land their first job, they should think about whether they want to be employed by a particular individual.
“If you’re having problems, you don’t need to stay. It’s better to be somewhere where you are supported and respected,” she says.