Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Trends in Veterinary Medicine

This article outlines the tendency of women to be more likely to study veterinary medicine than men.  Although the article is from 2010 the trend continues, as page 12 of this report by the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) shows.   This is a strong turnaround from say 40 years ago, when men were much more likely to become veterinarians than women.  I think that there are several factors for this change in demographics.

Veterinary medicine used to be focused on farms.  Veterinarians were called on for herd health and pregnancy checks as these animals were the farmers livelihood.  The barn cat or the farm dog were not part of the family, but there to do a job (mousing or protecting/herding respectively).  If the cat or dog got sick, the veterinarian was rarely called; you just got a new one from the next litter.  Because large animal work was difficult, required a lot of strength and was done in the cold, dark and dirt of a barn, women were less likely to choose to do the job.  This is not the case now, perhaps partly because of better equipment that make the job less physical for everyone, men and women.  Also, of course, because it is no longer seen as 'not ladylike' to want to work in any field that requires one to get dirty.

Another possibility of male domination of the field in the past is that forty years ago, women would often go to school and/or work until they found a husband and started a family.  Due to the small number of veterinary schools (currently only 5 schools in Canada, and one a recent addition), there was high competition to be accepted.  It was possibly seen that a woman who became a vet and then quit to have a family was taking the place of someone (a man) who would stay in the field.  For this and other reasons (not the least of which was simple sexism of the form 'women shouldn't be doing this job') colleges would often limit the number of women that were accepted. 

I think another reason for the trend is that in today's world, cats and dogs are a part of the family and in fact many people call their pets their fur-children. They are willing to spend the money on their pets to keep them healthy and many more veterinary practices now are small animal focused.  Women are more often effusively 'warm and fuzzy' about cats and dogs than men are.  Women are much more likely to fawn over people's pets--and the clients love it.  They want their veterinary staff to sweet-talk to their babies and women are much more likely to do so.  Don't get me wrong, I have worked with male veterinarians who are just as mushy (and who are excellent vets), but the traits are more likely to be demonstrated by women, in my opinion.

One reason mentioned in the article that men are not studying veterinary medicine in the same numbers as previously is because they are not getting accepted due to lower grades.  As stated above, competition is high to get into veterinary school: there are only five veterinary colleges in Canada, compared to more than 15 medical schools.  Therefore the higher your grades, the better chance you have to get admitted into the program--grades are often the first criteria for acceptance.  But perhaps grades are no longer the best way to find suitable candidates.  Intelligence is certainly necessary for veterinary medical persons, but there are many other traits that are required to be successful.  For instance in my veterinary technology program, we have had students that get grades of 90% and higher, but they do not have the psychomotor abilities to do the work.  We have those that have exceptional clinical skills, but do not have the social skills to be successful in a service oriented field that requires you to communicate effectively with coworkers and clients. 

I have also found that those with life experiences tend to do better in our program than those younger or straight out of high school.  The ability to problem solve and think critically, to not expect to be 'spoon fed', to be willing to do the right thing, even if there is no one watching--these traits seem to be seen more commonly in mature students.  We have also found that those who come to the program with life experience also tend to focus less on their grades and more on learning the material.  Being able to regurgitate the correct answers on a project or an exam without actually assimilating the knowledge is not going to help when you have a dog that requires emergency treatment on the table.
Therefore, perhaps suitability and aptitude for the veterinary field, and acceptance into educational programs, needs to focus more on a well-rounded individual, rather than primarily on grades.  This might not increase the number of men in veterinary programs, but it would certainly lead to more balanced veterinary professionals.

The article focuses on veterinarians, but the trend is very obvious in veterinary technology as well.  The program in which I teach will generally have only one or two male students out of each class of 30.  It may be because wages are not high or it may be because men tend to gravitate towards professions with more prestige.  I suspect that it is similar to nursing in that veterinary technology is currently seen by many as more of a women's profession, perhaps due to the nurturing aspect.  I wonder if that perception will change over time, just as the idea that being a veterinarian was viewed as more of a man's profession 40 years ago.  Whatever the reason for the inequality of gender representation in the field, it will be interesting to see the AAVMC report in the next few decades.

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