Is feminism necessary in veterinary practice?
Chances are that if you’re a veterinary professional reading this article you are sporting one of two faces. One is that of open scepticism. Your eyes are flicking back and forth between this body of text and its outrageous title, you’ve developed some kind of rare, vertical nystagmus as a result of the sixteen eye rolls you performed before deigning to scroll down the page and you can’t wait to abandon the remains of your hastily consumed sandwich to the Lunch Kennel table to head back into surgery with the girls and scoff at the notion that sexism could exist in your cosy practice.
The other potential facial expression is rabid, hungry for confirmation of something you’ve long suspected. Finally, you can be sure that scrawling #metoo on to the gauze-covered abdomens of recently c-sectioned, over-bred bulldog bitches has always been the right thing to do! You probably don’t shave.
These are clearly cliches. Unhelpful and abrasive cliches at that, and traps that we want to steer clear of. My point here is, let’s avoid the images of both the power-hungry, sexist statesman and the militant, ballbusting feminist. The term ‘feminism’ has been utilised by many causes and people, from bra-burners to Beyonce, but for the purpose of this article we are operating from the definition succinctly provided by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: ‘the belief that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities’, and when we talk about rights and opportunities we are specifically referring to career progression, satisfaction and remuneration.
Now that we have that out of the way let’s take a look at some facts and figures, kindly provided by way of excellent UK surveys conducted by the BVA and SPVS. You should most definitely check out the full surveys yourself but, in order to expedite our enlightening, I have summarised some of the findings below.
Women make up over 60% of the veterinary workforce (more in New Zealand, where the Chancellor of the only veterinary university stated that female vets are worth two fifths of male vets) yet less than half of all principals, directors and partners in veterinary practice within the UK.
Male vets are paid more than female vets, across all levels and roles.
Female vets are paid 18.6% - 36% less than their male colleagues, with differences being more pronounced at senior level.
Female vet nurses are on average paid 13% less than their male colleagues.
44% of survey respondents believed that females no longer experience discrimination, yet these respondents were the group most likely to discriminate against females. Of this 44%, 66% were male and median age was 47.
Among those who believe that discrimination is an issue, 23% were male.
Female vets are less likely to receive recognition of their professional skills, qualities and knowledge from their colleagues, contributing to a greater desire to leave the profession.
And so, in answer to the question ‘Is there a need for feminism in the veterinary industry?’ I believe the answer to be: indubitably.
It is confronting to realise that, even if I thought I was unbiased in my years of hiring and managing veterinary staff I possibly was not. I am 37, I am female, I am a woke, self proclaimed feminist! Surely gender bias never affected my decisions. Yet, unconscious bias is a bitch (the irony the of my hastily selected colloquialism here does not escape me) and the data states that many people in my position have unintentionally offered veterinary professionals with similar experiences and backgrounds different salaries or opportunities simply because of their gender.
Additionally, although I have never made them, I have overheard the following comments over the course of my 17 year career and not done enough to challenge those making them (and been laughed at/told it was just a joke when I did challenge):
‘Everyone says she is excellent but she just got married and so probably wants to have kids soon so be careful’.
‘Hiring a male vet will help to dilute all of the oestrogen in this practice’.
‘It’s hardly worth performance managing her, she’ll be leaving to have a baby soon anyway’.
‘The clients here love male vets and respond better to them’.
I am sure I am not the only one who finds comments such as these, along with the statistics, frustrating and discouraging. However, I believe it is important to start discussing how we can begin to make a difference and create positive changes in our practices at a grassroots level, rather than waiting for legislation to do the job for us. Let’s shift our focus from what the problem is to how we can solve it.
With this in mind I have come up with some strategies we could employ in veterinary practice. Some of these are very simple to achieve while others may seem unattainable (or even a bit mad) but hey, if I can sow some seeds in your mind by waxing rhapsodic about a utopic future where breeders always admit the vet is right, clients pay their bills first time every time, Dr Google always says ‘Book an appointment with an actual vet’ and gender equality in our profession is a thing of the past then why not?
So what can we do?
Conduct an internal salary survey, focusing on salary and seniority, to determine if a gender imbalance exists in your practice or group. This needs to be impartial and so survey fields should be simple and quantifiable for example position, qualifications and years in practice. If an imbalance exists put together an action plan to rectify this over a finite period of time. If you can, enlist someone from outside your organisation to assist you in this matter.
Be aware that you are quite possibly biased, regardless of your own gender and be conscious of this throughout hiring, management and negotiation processes. Wake up, be woke.
Have frank discussions with your employees - bring up the topic of feminism and equality in the workplace, ask them how they feel and listen to their feedback, offering anonymous venues for collection of this data if necessary.
Be conscious of, and intolerant of, gender biased language. Lead by example.
Encourage your male employees to take paternity leave. Few men take the full allowance when their partner has a child or when they adopt. This is a complex issue and one we have a long way to go with. Every Practice Manager knows it can be especially difficult to manage parental leave in a small, independent business but wouldn’t it be wonderful to be a front-runner like Aviva and offer all parents 6 months of paid leave, regardless of gender? Women who choose to have children can never experience a level playing field while their male counterparts do not experience similar career pauses and, as importantly, men have as much right to spend time with their children as women. The waterfall effects of this include happier and more fulfilled employees and children who grow up to experience and expect equal input from both parents and equal treatment in the world, regardless of gender - need I say more?
Consider how you may help parents with their childcare needs. Many parents in the vet industry struggle with balancing childcare and the unsocial hours that are necessary for our profession. It is impossible to drop the kids off at childcare when your shift starts at 7am and very hard to see your children when you do not arrive home until after bedtime most nights. This, in combination with the fact that the male partner is often paid a higher salary, can often mean that women are penalised professionally and end up leaving their role. This is one of the more creative suggestions I will make but, given the high numbers of women in the vet industry, perhaps we need to at least start thinking about providing on-site childcare as an option for working parents. This would help skip the stress of pre and post shift drop-offs/collections and assist in clinician continuity as well as the retention of talented individuals who now also happen to be parents. Parents on a veterinary team could group together to share on-site childcare costs, perhaps with some financial support from the practice. This would also be a godsend for lactating mothers who want to return to work but do not want to have to sacrifice the health of their child (the WHO recommends breastfeeding continue up until the age of 2 years and beyond).
I’ll never forget an older, male colleague who was mentoring me as a Practice Manager telling me that in his experience men generally ask for 2K over what they think they’re worth and women generally 2K under what they think they’re worth. Ladies, remember that we’ve all been influenced by unconscious conditioning. It’s entirely possible that you are worth more than you think you are. When negotiating on salary, try aiming higher than you think, you might be surprised at the result.
Actively recognise and appreciate the professional skills, knowledge and qualities of your female colleagues. Go on, it might feel awkward to start with but it will mean a lot to someone, I promise.
Be conscious of, and intolerant of, gender biased language. Lead by example.
Offer to assist your manager with their internal gender bias survey in any way you can. Help get the ball rolling.
Having been a vet nurse and practice manager for a long time, I realise that a lot of these ideas are difficult for small businesses to institute, particularly with the budgetary constraints and limitations on physical space faced in many modern practices. However I do hope that perhaps you may come away from this article with the cogs turning, your eyes open and a renewed desire to take a good, honest look at your practice and see what you can do to help us all address the imbalance in our profession - small steps start long journeys, and it is indeed a long journey we have ahead.
I'd love to hear your thoughts and suggestions so please do get in touch to share these with me.