April 10, 2014

PARANDEKAR | The Glass Ceiling in Veterinary Medicine

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Each year, after a veterinary class graduates from Cornell, a framed picture of the class composite is hung in one of the main hallways in the school. You can walk down the hallway and see the class composites all the way back to 1900. It’s fun to notice the trends over time, like in hairstyles and clothes, but the one thing that immediately strikes you is the change in the ratio of men to women in the classes. In the beginning, the graduating classes are all men. Then, around the late 1920s, one or two women start to trickle in every now and then. But it takes until the 1970s for there to be more than just a small handful of women, and finally in the late 1980s and early 1990s the classes become primarily  women.

For the most part, this is a phenomenon that my classmates and I don’t think about very much aside from bemoaning the lack of social life that results from having less than a one-to-four ratio of men to women in the veterinary classes. But it almost always takes visitors by surprise, so I think it’s worth discussing.

Originally, veterinarians served farm animals and carriage horses, and it was socially believed that this dirty work was no place for women, who would have lacked the strength for it anyways. Veterinary school was also a professional school which required additional education — generally not something women at the time were encouraged to pursue.

There are a handful of factors I can think of off the top of my head that allowed for the introduction of women into the profession. One was that the advent of the car made it that horses were no longer the primary means of transportation, which changed veterinary medicine’s role in society and likely encouraged more companion animal (i.e., dog and cat) medicine. Another is that the creation of safer, stronger new forms of sedation eliminated size as an issue when dealing with any species of animal. The third is that the glass ceiling was rising for many professions due to changing social trends, and women in the workforce were becoming more and more prevalent.

Which brings us to where we are today, with veterinary classes across the country consisting predominantly of women. Some people say that women are drawn to veterinary medicine because they are inherently compassionate and it is a profession that requires a good deal of compassion and that men interested in a health profession would rather go into human medicine because it is more lucrative. I disagree with both of these — I don’t think compassion is a function of gender, and there’s no reason that financial motivation would be less important to women than it is to men. If I wanted to subscribe to a broad generalization like that, I would be more inclined to lean towards the one that shows that women are generally better students, which makes them more competitive for spots in highly selective veterinary programs (but I’m clearly not biased).

Also, despite the fact that the youth of the profession are mostly female, there are a disproportionately low number of females getting elected or assigned to positions of leadership in the profession (presidents of local, national and species-specific veterinary medical organizations, deanships, etc.), so the glass ceiling is clearly still in place. I’m not sure if this is a sustainable pattern though — eventually there will be so few men to select from for these positions that there will be no choice but for them to be filled by women. That being said, I’ve spent most of my life in the Northeast and I’m told that trying to get a job as a female large animal practitioner in the Deep South can still be difficult. Regardless, I think that it will be interesting to watch what changes the influx of women in the veterinary profession will bring about.