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The Impact Of Women In The Veterinary Profession

16 years ago

6th October, 2006 00h00

There is no question that women make excellent vets, but the growing gender imbalance in the profession - 73% of 2005 graduates were women - will no doubt have an impact on the profession, according to Lynne Hill, RCVS Senior Vice-President, speaking at the BVA Congress: 'Vets, animal health and the human factor: veterinary medicine in the 2015,' on Friday 29 September. However, much of this impact is positive, she believes, with women catalysing changes such as an improved work-life balance, shorter hours and more flexible working patterns, from which all members of the profession can benefit. Quoting the findings of the RCVS Survey of the Profession 2006, Mrs Hill highlighted that some of the perceived negatives, conversely, were not being seen. "Given the effect that having a family may have on a woman's career, one might expect to see the percentage of vets working part time or taking a career break increase. In fact, these areas are quite stable," she explained "There has been only a small rise in part-time work, from 11% in 2000 to 14% in 2006, and there was actually a small reduction in those taking a career break, from 3% in both 2000 and 2002, to 2% in 2006 - although 54% of those taking a break stated that this was to look after children." Another expected outcome of the increase in women in the profession was a concurrent decline in willingness to take equity in a business. Again, the Survey showed this not to be the case: "Twenty three per cent of partners in practice were women, which is quite a high proportion, considering that the average age of women respondents was 37.5, compared with 51 for men," highlighted Mrs Hill. With the percentage of female graduates rising from 34% in 1975-6 to 73% in 2005, and nearly 50% female vets on the RCVS Register, it is only natural that people will ponder the reasons behind the increasing female interest in the profession, said Mrs Hill. "Speculations include the increasing number of TV vets, the rise of small animal practice and the advent of restraining drugs and other medications that have reduced the need for physical strength in practice," she explained. "But the reality may be somewhat different: evidence suggests that it is not a sudden desire from women to be vets. In 1949, if every applicant to vet school had been accepted, 70% of students would have been women. Instead it was 12% 'by agreement' from the schools," said Mrs Hill. This was a finding made by Maureen Aitken in a 1994 article in the Veterinary Record. In effect, there has been a lag between women's desires to be vets and the permission given to them to achieve this. Mrs Hill ended her presentation by raising questions about whether and how the imbalance might be rectified, with suggestions such as delayed entry to university, improved promotion of available career options and even positive discrimination, as potential ways of attracting men back to the profession. Evolutionary differences Mrs Hill spoke during a session entitled 'Safety in Numbers,' alongside Dr Helena Cronin, Co-director of the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science at the London School of Economics, and Dr Roger Mahr, President of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). According to Dr Cronin, differing gender behaviour can be related to evolved sex differences. Simplifying the difference to 'females prefer people; males prefer things' she explained that the talents, tastes and temperaments of women and men informed career behaviour and decisions. For example, following the birth of a first child, research indicated that women became less committed to the work place and men even more so, behaviour reflecting evolutionary drives to nurture and provide respectively. Dr Cronin raised the possibility that as the veterinary profession changes due to the influence of women, it might become less attractive to men, therefore reinforcing the cycle of change. This potential pattern reflected evolutionary sex differences, she believed, and any policies devised to affect such changes could only be successful if they took account of this. American picture Dr Mahr painted a picture of the gender balance in the US veterinary profession that had strong resonances with that in the UK. By 2007, the majority of AVMA members would be women, he said. However, research carried out by AVMA showed that 88% of clients had no preference for whether they saw a male or female veterinary surgeon and that although there is a gap between male and female incomes, the majority of women were aware of this and it did not affect their rating of 'income satisfaction'. Dr Mahr's research indicated that the level of debt incurred at university did not, perhaps surprisingly, affect the desire to buy in to practice. However, he identified that women were less likely to aspire to be practice owners than men, as were vets of either sex who had children. When ranking those factors most important when choosing a work environment, salary was number one for both sexes, according to the AVMA research. However, "relationships with colleagues" was ranked number two for women and number seven for men, and "contact with animals" was placed at numbers three and nine respectively. These results would seem to correlate with Dr Cronin's assertion that women are more relationship-focused.

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