Hey, good lookin'! Is your veterinary clinic gender biased?

Hey, good lookin'! Is your veterinary clinic gender biased?

If one of your male employees came to you with concerns about gender bias, what would you do to remedy the situation?
Nov 01, 2013

The Helo Veterinary Center had grown steadily over the past seven years. This Midwestern clinic started by Dr. Helo now had six veterinarians and nine veterinary technicians. Dr. Helo believed one of the secrets of success was creating a pleasant working environment through encouraging camaraderie among coworkers.

Recently James Hass was interviewed and chosen for the position of senior veterinary technician. James had trained at a local college, obtained his veterinary technician certification, and worked at a nearby animal hospital for the past six years. He was excited to be hired by a larger facility. His previous practice had been a small clinic with four employees. This was a chance for him to broaden his veterinary technical horizons. James also fit in well with the staff. His fellow veterinary technicians respected his skills and the doctors made him feel welcome.

However, a few things began to make James feel uneasy in his new position. For one thing, the technicians' uniforms, which were provided by the clinic, were powder blue scrubs with a pink band running down the front of the scrub shirts. These scrubs wouldn't have been James' choice, but his coworkers enjoyed the look. Also, the break room chatter often revolved around his fellow female technicians talking about good-looking male clients that had recently presented their pets for treatment. And the employee of the month, selected by Dr. Helo for exemplary performance, was given a spa treatment coupon at the local boutique.

What's more, James prided himself on his physical fitness and spent two afternoons when not on duty at the local gym. His fellow technicians commented on the fact that he was really buff, and they affectionately nicknamed him "muscle man" because of his muscular appearance.

Eventually James started to ruminate about his comfort level in his working environment. It was not a particular person or even a single comment, but rather a culmination of comments reflecting the staff's attitude that started to make him feel self-conscious about his gender. He did not feel he was being sexually harassed, but he did think his sex and sexuality were being abnormally noted. If he were a female employee in a male-dominated workplace, would comments about sexy women, nicknames referencing prominent body features and having to wear more masculine uniforms be considered forms of sexual harassment or simply unintentional insensitivity?

James scheduled a meeting to speak with Dr. Helo, the practice owner. He voiced his concerns but stopped short of saying that he was being sexually harassed. Camaraderie and mutual respect among coworkers were of paramount concern to him. He definitely understood how his lone male technician felt, but he told James he did not think he was being sexually harassed. He also stated that it was very important that the other members of his technical staff be comfortable in their work environment as well. Dr. Helo went on to say in a tactful manner that sexual harassment was a violation of workplace law, but that basic harassment and coworker insensitivity were not. He believed it was important to reach a middle ground in this situation so that no one would feel burdened by his or her workplace environment.

After the meeting, Dr. Helo communicated with his technicians via memo. He advised them to be aware that workforce growth often comes with both ethnic and gender diversity. In view of these growing pains, all staff members needed to be sensitive to issues that might make a coworker uncomfortable and refrain from such behavior. James received the memo and felt that it did not go far enough in addressing those issues that made him ill at ease. He continued to fulfill his duties at the Helo Veterinary Center, but things were never quite the same after the memo was issued. Four months into his tenure, James decided he would be happier returning to a smaller veterinary work environment and left Dr. Helo's clinic.

Rosenberg's response

Gender bias is unacceptable even if it is subtle or unintentional. Double standards must not exist. It is just as inappropriate to address a male technician as "muscle man" as it would be to label a female technician a "hottie."

Workplace directives must be clear. Dr. Helo did not make it crystal clear to his staff where he stood on this issue. He should have intervened when he perceived that his female technicians were a bit more preoccupied than they should have been with their new male coworker. Unfortunately Dr. Helo minimized his new technician's concerns. This resulted in the loss of a very capable, skilled employee who simply wanted a harassment-free workplace in order to do his job.

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Dr. Marc Rosenberg is director of the Voorhees Veterinary Center in Voorhees, N.J. He is a member of the New Jersey Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners.