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Thinking about gender

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IT won't be the first time the issue of gender has reared its head during a BVA Congress debate, nor is it likely to be the last. Nevertheless, the role of women in the veterinary profession is to be the subject of a ‘hot topic’ debate at the BVA Congress at the London Vet Show later this month, which will look specifically at the role of women as leaders and entrepreneurs.

That the subject has achieved such topical status seems partly to have been prompted by the results of the latest RCVS Survey of the Veterinary Profession, which found, among other things, that, despite the increasing number of women veterinary surgeons, women still seem to be occupying a lower proportion of senior positions in practice than men. Also, the BVA's recent ‘Voice of the Veterinary Profession’ survey found that a lower proportion of vets in the 26- to 34-year-old age group, of whom women make up the majority, are satisfied with their careers than vets in other age groups.

Both of these findings are potentially of concern, and the underlying reasons need to be addressed, but whether this is simply a gender issue is, perhaps, just one of the topics that might usefully be discussed.

One of the most striking findings of the latest RCVS survey, compared with a similar survey conducted in 2010, was that, while the proportion of vets working as either part-time or full-time assistants in clinical practice had remained unchanged since 2010, at 57 per cent, the proportion working as equity partners had more than halved (from 13 per cent to 6 per cent). The proportion working as sole principals had also fallen, from 8 per cent to 5 per cent, while the proportion employed as directors rose from 9 per cent to 15 per cent (VR, September 27, 2014, vol 175, p 288). These findings must largely reflect practice consolidation and the variety of different practice business models that have emerged in recent years, including the growth of corporate practice.

Equally striking was a breakdown of the results for those occupying these more senior positions in terms of gender, with men outnumbering women in all three categories. Thus, for sole principals, the proportions were 7.6 per cent and 3.1 per cent, respectively; for equity partners 11.8 and 2.8 per cent; and for directors 24.5 and 6.5 per cent. In contrast, the proportion of women working as veterinary assistants was 70.7 per cent, almost double the proportion for men (36.2 per cent). It could be argued that this reflects the different age profiles of male and female veterinary surgeons; for example, the average age of practice directors was 47, and this is an age group in which male vets still outnumber female vets. However, men only just outnumber women in this age group, and not by anything like four to one. If all was equal in the veterinary world, one would expect the numbers to be more evenly balanced by now, or at least to see a significant shift very soon.

The BVA survey found that, when asked whether they would choose to be a vet again, only 47 per cent of vets in the 26- to 34-year-old age group said yes. This was a lower proportion than in any other age group, including those more recently qualified, where 85 per cent said yes, and those over 35, where the proportion was more than 55 per cent, being higher in the older age groups. The proportion who said they would not choose to be a vet if they had their time again was also highest in the 26- to 34-year-old age group, at 21 per cent. These findings are worrying, and clearly suggest that something isn't right. However, whether this is a gender or even specifically a veterinary issue, rather than a generational issue, is open to debate. The late 20s and early 30s can be a challenging and uncertain time in anyone's life and unfortunately, for economic and a whole host of other reasons, things seem to be a lot tougher for people at this stage of their lives now than they were for the generation before.

The consequences of an increasing proportion of women in the veterinary and medical professions formed an important theme at the BVA Congress in 2008, at which Dame Carol Black, a former president of the Royal College of Physicians, gave a plenary lecture entitled ‘We're all professionals, so does sex matter?’. Having chaired a working group examining reasons for a dearth of women occupying senior positions in the human medical field, particularly in the acute medical specialties, Dame Carol argued that there were ‘occupationally relevant sex differences’ between men and women that affected the way they approached their careers, and that these needed to be taken into account when planning and managing services (VR, October 14, 2006, vol 159, p 501). This latter point was again emphasised when the subject was revisited at the BVA Congress in 2012, which drew attention to some of the many positive aspects of more women in the profession while also seeking to dispel some ‘myths’ about what might ensue (VR, November 10, 2012, vol 171, pp 466-467). It is interesting to note that some of the different business models and working structures that have developed in veterinary practice in recent years may reflect and help to accommodate possible differences in approaches to working between men and women. However, whether this has happened by accident or design is another matter that is open to debate.

Much of the discussion about gender focuses on clinical practice, but practice is just one of the activities that vets are engaged in. Others include academia and research. The progress of women in science has been the subject of a great deal of scrutiny over the years, with a government-commissioned report more than a decade ago now having memorably likened their career structure to a ‘leaky pipe’ in which ‘at each level of seniority, fewer women than men make it to the next level’ (VR, December 7, 2002, vol 151, p 681). Worryingly, a report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee earlier this year found that, despite reasons for this having been identified and various initiatives having been undertaken, little seems to have changed in the meantime (VR, February 15, 2014, vol 174, p 154). It may be, as some have suggested, that women need help in developing leadership skills and the confidence to ‘put themselves forward’. On the other hand, it could be that new working structures and ways of working, and new ideas about leadership, are needed. Even without adding unequal pay to the mix, there will be plenty to consider during the congress debate.

The debate ‘Setting the A-gender: women as leaders and entrepreneurs’ will take place during the BVA Congress at the London Vet Show on November 21. A panel discussion on ‘The state of the profession – where are we now?’ takes place on November 20. Details of the congress are available at www.bva.co.uk/londonvetshow

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