Monday, June 19, 2017

Is being a female veterinarian an issue?

Poodle, standard poodle
This poodle isn't female, but was at the AVA Conference chilling out in the exhibition hall.

There are more female veterinarians than ever in our profession, yet we continue to experience challenges.

At the recent AVA conference, Campbell Fisher – Managing Partner and Solicitor Director of FCB Group – gave a presentation about some of these challenges.
It’s hard to say exactly how many women in the profession, but according to a 2009 NAB survey it was 3500 – compared to just 471 in 1980. That figure has undoubtedly increased almost a decade later. In the 2016 AVA Veterinary Workforce Survey, 62 per cent of respondents were female – BUT the response rate was 14 per cent and studies have shown that women are more likely to respond to surveys. 

Yet there remains a shortage of female graduates working in rural communities, partly, it seems, because of longer hours, greater travel distances, more overtime and less availability of child care. In most countries including Australia it appears that men are more likely than women to own a practice and thus employ other veterinarians.

(In this fast-moving area it is perilous to cite “old” literature, but excellent paper by Heath and Lanyon looked at motivations for studying veterinary science 21 years ago. Key factors influencing men to study vet science were the desire to be independent of supervision and the financial attractiveness of veterinary practice. Key factors influencing women to study vet science were a love of animals, veterinarians on TV, an interest in living things and the scientific study of disease(Heath and Lanyon, 1996). If these trends are accurate and held over that time period, you can understand why males were drawn to practice ownership than females).

It seems that not all employers are up with the 2009 Commonwealth Fair Work Act, which provides entitlements including entitlements for pregnant employees, parental leave access and the right to request flexible work arrangements. For women employed for over 12 months in their current job, this means they can request flexible work arrangements (this might include varying hours worked, starting and finishing times etc). Under the Act, employers do need to consider these requests and respond in writing within 21 days, refusing a flexible work request only on “reasonable business grounds”.

In small clinics it could still be very hard to accommodate such requests due to the nature of the work.

Despite the existence of the Sex Discrimination Act, Mr Fisher argued that gender inequality continues in our profession. He cited a recent study which found that for every 100 women who got promoted from an entry level position to a management role, 130 men advance. Additionally, while employers might be educated about sex discrimination, not all clients are, and women may be subject to discrimination from clients. I remember some years ago I was locuming in a practice and a male client presented an aggressive German Shepherd for examination. Before he saw me he had decided this was beyond my capacity due to the fact that I am biologically female, and requested to see the male vet. My colleague had a fear of this breed due to a traumatic childhood experience, but the client absolutely insisted that he preferred that the dog was examined by a male. I don’t think anyone was happy in that situation, regardless of their gender and/or species.

It’s hard to believe in this day and age that people in any workplace (or any context really) are being discriminated against because of their gender or sex, but it happens. We need legislation, and education, to continue to fight it.


HEATH, T. J. & LANYON, A. 1996. A longitudinal study of veterinary students and recent graduates. 4. Gender issues. Aust Vet J, 74, 305-8.