Women rock gender balance in profession

Women rock gender balance in profession

Mar 03, 2003

When Dr. Peter Eyre graduated from veterinary college in 1960, three of his classmates were female.

Now, the dean of Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine says just a handful of male students apply to his program, let alone gain entry. The profession's seen a dramatic shift, Eyre says, forcing colleges to do an about-face.

"When I went to school, women were deliberately kept out of the profession; there was a longstanding prejudice and tradition," he says. "That thought rapidly changed over the last 40 years. It's changed from the days when 5 percent of students were women to now 80 percent.

"The entire profession will be women within a decade and a half. It's inevitable."

Steady migration

While no one's pinpointed a single motive for the gender shift, the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) recently released telling figures as part of its Comparative Data Report. The group's numbers show that while 2002 enrollment at the country's 27 veterinary colleges topped at 9,363 students, just 2,365 were male or 25.3 percent. The remaining 74.7 percent, or 6,998 students, reportedly were female.

"The numbers are extreme, but I'm not surprised," says AAVMC Executive Director Dr. Lawrence Heider. "These are the trends. They're here to stay."

While Eyre surmises that the influx of female veterinarians stems from years of gender-based ostracism, he admits that's not the only answer.

"It's partly a rebound due to the fact that women were once kept out, but you would've expected it to balance out if that were the only issue," he says. "It's gone way beyond that."

Economics drive out men

Popular thought insists the gender shift largely relates to economics as veterinarians make up one of the lowest paid professional groups, reports the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues.

That idea is further exemplified when considering the starting salaries for new graduates versus their educational indebtedness, highlighted in the Feb. 1 Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA). According to the American Veterinary Medical Association's annual employment survey, the mean starting salaries of 2002 graduates in all veterinary fields was $40,364. At the same time, at least 87 percent of graduates incurred a mean educational debt of $72,719 each.

With a comparative debt load, doctors in human medicine earn nearly three times more, which lures men away from veterinary medicine, Eyre says.

"The economics of the profession we've been so concerned about have been demonstrated," he says. "Women are not as interested in the bottom line, that's just a societal, cultural fact, even if it's politically incorrect."

View from within

Building on Eyre's theory is Dr. Shirley Johnston, dean of Western University of Health Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine (WesternU), which starts its inaugural class this fall.

Johnston, the nation's only female collegiate head, explains the gender shift by linking two 1980s phenomena: Average annual incomes started dropping as the profession's gender demographics began to drastically change.

"One school of thought is that as women move into professions, society devalues that profession," says Johnston, one of six women in her 1974 graduating class. "Think of nursing or teaching, which at one time were male-dominated fields. When women become the predominate group in a profession, it may be that men undervalue that work."

Family first

There's also an argument that women are not as financially successful as men, don't spend as many hours working, are altruistic and less willing to be fiscally responsible, Johnston says.

Whether or not that's true, new graduates seemingly aren't willing to work as much as older generations, she adds.

"Women want a work-life balance," says Tracy Dowdy, a consultant with Brakke Consulting, Inc. "They value time off more than money. Just having vacation time or working a four-day week or long maternity leave means a lot. Money doesn't usually come with those perks."

Those needs have changed the practice of veterinary medicine, Eyre says.

"Not long ago, anyone who wanted to do part-time veterinary work almost would've been run out of the profession," he says.

Compassion in the profession

Women have not only changed the workplace mindset but they've brought with them a heightened sense of compassion, says Dr. Michael Blackwell, dean of the University of Tennessee's veterinary college.

"One of the biggest impacts that women have had on our profession has been to raise our sensitivity toward animals," Blackwell says. "I think men and women differ quite a bit when it comes to compassion."

It's nurturing the human-animal bond and the growth of small animal practices that have attracted women to the veterinary field, Eyre adds.

"When I was in college the first animal I dissected was a horse. Nowadays the first animal students dissect is a dog," he says. "The small animal practice is no longer an orphaned part of this profession."