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Does sex matter?

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‘WE'RE all professionals, so does sex matter?’

That was the title of the plenary Wooldridge Memorial Lecture at this year's bva Congress, which looked at the growing proportion of women in the veterinary and other biomedical professions and how this might affect the way the professions develop in the future. It also formed the subject of a second congress session, which explored some of the issues further. The answer, at least for some of the speakers, is that it most certainly does. Women, it was argued, approach things differently from men; it was important to be aware of this, and manage things accordingly.

The scene was set in the Wooldridge lecture, given by Dame Carol Black, past-president of the Royal College of Physicians. Discussing the situation in the human medical field, she drew attention to the dearth of women in the most senior posts, particularly in the acute medical specialities, and asked why this might be happening. The phenomenon, she pointed out, was not confined to the medical profession, or indeed to the uk; it also applied in other professions and across the developed world.

She examined various factors that might make careers in the acute medical specialities less attractive to women, the kinds of obstacles that might be encountered and how these might be overcome. However, having chaired a Royal College of Physicians working party on the subject, she did not believe that women faced ‘a glass ceiling’ that prevented them going ‘onwards and upwards’ in medicine; rather, she said, ‘it was a choice that women made’.

There were, she argued, ‘occupationally relevant sex differences’ between men and women that affected the way they approached their careers, and account needed to be taken of these when planning and managing services. This would mean rethinking classic career structures, and possibly frameworks of incentives and rewards. ‘A successful society simply must make best use of all of the talents of all of its members,’ she said, noting it was important to make best use of the female workforce that was being generated. She hoped that, as more women doctors reached the top of their profession, they would have more opportunity to shape and define its style of leadership — and also the style of medicine itself.

The idea that women are different from men was firmly supported in the second congress session by Dr Helena Cronin, of the London School of Economics, who, taking a strictly Darwinian view of differences between the sexes, argued that males specialised more in competing, and females more in caring. Understanding this was fundamental to understanding how men and women approached their careers — and she also suggested that, as the gender balance within a particular field started to shift, that process would continue. ‘As women move into an occupation, that occupation begins to change, and men become less attracted to it. So it becomes increasingly female. It is a self-reinforcing cycle.’

In the uk, women currently account for nearly 50 per cent of home practising veterinary surgeons and, with the proportion of female veterinary graduates having exceeded the proportion of male graduates for a number of years now, will soon be in the majority. Much the same thing is happening in the usa, where women will make up the majority of members of the American Veterinary Medical Association (avma) by 2007. Is this something to be worried about? Mrs Lynne Hill, past-president of the rcvs, told the congress that, while the growing proportion of women in the profession will undoubtedly have an impact, much of that impact would be positive, with women catalysing changes such as an improved work-life balance, shorter hours and more flexible working patterns, from which all members of the profession could benefit. Discussing the results of the recent rcvs employment survey (VR, April 29, 2006, vol 158, pp 575-576), she also sought to dispel some of the myths about women veterinary surgeons, such as that women were unlikely to take equity in a business. In the rcvs survey, nearly 23 per cent of partners in practice were women, which, she pointed out, was ‘quite a high proportion, considering that the average age of women respondents was 37·5, compared with 51 for men’.

An interesting perspective was provided by Dr Roger Mahr, president of the avma, who presented the results of an avma study of the gender issue, which had considered attitudes among both veterinarians and clients. One of the more telling findings was that, in the small animal sector at least, the majority of clients (88 per cent) were not concerned about the gender of the veterinarian: the important thing was that they obtained a professional service. Perhaps it is on that — on providing the required service — that most attention should be focused.

That is not to say that there are not important issues to consider, such as what might be done to attract more women into science. It is not so long ago that a Government-commissioned report likened the scientific career structure to ‘a leaky pipe’ in which ‘at every level of seniority, fewer women than men made it to the next level’ (VR, May 3, 2003, vol 152, p 545), and efforts must continue to be made to correct this. As far as the veterinary profession is concerned, the question was raised at the bva Congress as to whether it would be healthy to have a profession whose composition differed so markedly from that of the society it served. This, in turn, raised the question of what might be done to encourage more men to apply. Judging from the congress debates, gender does seem to be an issue for the veterinary and other professions, and will continue to be discussed for some time to come.

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