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Valuing women in the workforce
  1. Suzanne Jarvis

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Over recent weeks you may have seen stories in both the veterinary press and national newspapers on the gender pay gap.

If you are looking for equality, the picture is not heartening. The most recent gender pay gap report from the World Economic Forum estimated it would take 202 years for equal pay to be achieved at the current rate of progress. And that the gap had actually widened in favour of men in nearly half of the companies in the UK.

In the veterinary sector, the figures also do not look good, but it is difficult to tell if there is unequal pay in individual companies and organisations, as the figures demanded by the UK government do not compare pay for men and women doing equal work.

This is certainly the argument put forward by many companies in the veterinary sector – lower paid jobs, such as vet nurses, care assistants and receptionists, are more likely to be done by women and, since the reporting methodology uses median rather than mean salaries, this ‘distorts’ the picture towards these lower averages.

As with many issues, transparency is the key to ascertaining if there is unequal pay. It would be great to see companies publishing data for men and women doing comparable work.

Tracking these disparities is a start, but action is needed – and sooner than within 200 years. In a debate in parliament in April, the minister for women, Victoria Atkins, said that pay inequalities ‘cannot be overturned overnight’. But looking outside the UK there are examples that could be said to have done just that. In Iceland legislation has been introduced that makes it illegal for men and women to not be paid equally for the same job, or there is Energy Australia, which has spent AUS $1.2 million equalising the pay of women it employs – equality achieved almost overnight.

We know from research carried out by Michelle Ryan and Chris Begeny at Exeter university that discrimination against women vets does exist (VR, 17 November 2018, vol 183, p 580). Their research found that gender does make a difference to how vets are ‘perceived, treated and paid’.

There appears to be two things going on. One concerns equal pay for equal work – evidence shows women vets are being paid less than men for the same work. This is an area where, if there was to be better reporting and transparency, we could hope to see quick progress. The other is that the better paid roles are more likely to be filled by men.

Better paid roles are more likely to be filled by men

There are all sorts of reasons given as to why this is the case – but behind most of these reasons is likely to be a value judgement about women. Some will argue there are good reasons why women are less likely to make it to these senior roles, and it doesn’t take long, when visiting social media sites and forums, for some Jurassic views around, for example, parenting and careers breaks to surface.

But these same old arguments need to be put aside and the debate must move on.

An article publishing in Vet Record in 1973 was highlighted on Twitter recently. ‘In praise of wives’ described women that married vets as ‘angels’, while the ‘part which wives play, each in her own domestic sphere, in the efficiency and smooth running of the profession’ highlighted the commitment and unpaid work that was expected from women married to vets. Society has moved on since then, but more progress is still needed.

In a debate on the gender pay gap in Westminster Hall in December, Stella Creasy MP, perhaps summed it up best: ‘No sector – public, private or third – is immune from critique, because frankly none of them is valuing women in the way they could. That is reflected in how they pay them, how they promote them and how they work with them.’

There are many impressive individuals of both sexes in the veterinary profession. But in a profession with approximately 1.5 women to every male vet it makes no sense not to value this resource – and pay, promote and work with them fairly.

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