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‘Sorry it’s a no...you might get pregnant’
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By Josh Loeb

Imagine being told that you cannot get ahead in your career because you have a womb.

Despite the fact that this type of discrimination has been illegal in the UK since 1975, that’s what numerous female vets say they have experienced.

Several have anonymously shared their stories in a bid to highlight the issue of direct sex discrimination in the profession.

One, a farm vet who went on to start her own practice, said that when she first started out in a mixed practice job she was explicitly told by bosses that she would not be promoted because she could get pregnant one day.

They said there’s no position for any females to proceed or get ahead in this business

‘They basically turned round and flatly said, no – because you’re female and you’re going to get married, you’re going to go off and have children. They said there’s no position for any females to proceed or get ahead in this business,’ she told Vet Record.

She added: ‘They said, you’re in a long-term relationship – you might be a good vet or whatever, but there is no opportunity for you to progress any higher than the position you are in now.

‘They were quite open about it. I’d been there a decent amount of time and I wasn’t expecting them to say, “Yes, gosh, let’s make you a director”, but I was hoping that there might be something in the next five or 10 years that I could aspire to. And I was flatly told, “No”.’

Later, when she went for an interview for another job (not long after the experience described above), she was told by a person in charge of hiring that she ‘didn’t really suit’ what they were looking for.

‘When I asked why, I was told, “Well, you’re probably going to get married and have children” They said they were looking for somebody who was going to stay in the job a bit longer,’ she said.

That was around a decade ago. As a result of those two incidents, she chose to start up her own practice. It has since gone from strength to strength.

Belinda Lester, an employment lawyer who has provided advice to female vets considering taking their cases to a tribunal, said that turning a woman down for a job or promotion on the basis that she could become pregnant was ‘completely unjustifiable’ and that such behaviour would be legally indefensible in court.

‘Saying that you’re not going to give someone a job because they’re going to go off and have children is direct maternity discrimination and direct sex discrimination,’ said Lester.

Direct discrimination of this kind was less common than ‘indirect’ discrimination, she said, whereby a job is advertised as only being available as a full-time position.

‘That indirectly discriminates against women too, because even in 2019 it’s generally women who are the primary caregivers of children and elderly parents, so they’re less likely to be able to comply with that requirement than men,’ Lester said.

Unlike direct discrimination, indirect discrimination can be legal – if shown to be justified and ‘a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’.

Michelle Ryan, a professor of social and organisational psychology who has carried out research into gender discrimination in the veterinary profession, described the stories of women of childbearing age being turned down for jobs or promotions as ‘interesting’ but ‘not surprising’.

She added: ‘Overt sexism is alive and well in society, so it’s bound to also be evident in the veterinary profession.’

Several female respondents to the BVA’s recent discrimination survey, published last month, also gave examples of direct sex discrimination they say they had faced.

Information gathered as part of the survey reveals that alleged cases of this type of discrimination include:

  • A female vet working in small animal practice being told that she was being passed over for promotion because she ‘kept f***ing off to have babies’

  • Another was told by a male vet in charge of hiring decisions that he hated taking on young female vets because they ‘go off and get pregnant’

  • A third young female vet was asked during a job interview: ‘What’s your five year plan – and you know what we’re asking because we’re not allowed to ask it?’

Of a total of 40 anonymised case studies seen by Vet Record, at least a dozen specifically mentioned being targeted for unequal treatment because of pregnancy (or the possibility of it), maternity leave, childcare responsibilities – or perceptions thereof on the part of the employer.

This journal has spoken directly with several women with similar stories to tell. All asked not to be named.

A vet working in academia, had her research ideas ‘stolen’ by colleagues while she was on maternity leave – despite specifically requesting to her manager that she be allowed to use her ‘keeping in touch’ days to stay involved in a grant application for which she had been the primary initiator.

In another case, a former senior manager at Vets Now, said the corporate tried to pressure her into doing extra night shifts while she was still breastfeeding her young infant child during the night.

I said I could help out, but I couldn’t do a 15-hour night shift while breastfeeding

‘I’d told them that I could help out but couldn’t do 15-hour night shifts until he was on solids as it wasn’t feasible,’ she said.

She also said that she was told that she was not allowed to breastfeed her baby within Vets Now’s head office, even during a designated ‘family day’, and that she would have to go outside or into the first aid room to do so. She has since left Vets Now.

Vets Now’s people director Samantha Prentice told Vet Record she was ‘very sorry to hear’ of the woman’s experience, adding that the company took all such matters ‘extremely seriously’ and would normally launch a full investigation into an employee complaint.

‘Unfortunately, due to the historic nature of the allegation, and that the employee did not come forward to inform us at the time, we’ve been unable to gather any further details on what may have happened,’ Prentice added.

She said: ‘We [Vets Now] pride ourselves on being an inclusive and family-friendly employer and we have guidelines in place for new and expectant mothers, which particularly protects the rights of children and women in our workplace. We would also do anything we can to support parents returning to work after having a child.’

Prentice said there was no obligation for any staff member to work outside of their contracted hours and that breastfeeding employees were free to express milk during work hours.

The BVA advises any member who believes they have been discriminated against to call the association’s free legal helpline – a 24-hour service, equipped to help with personal matters.

Earlier this year, Vet Record reported on how the gender pay gap at all eight major veterinary corporates was higher than the national average (VR, 20 April 2019, vol 184, pp 492-493). The figures do not directly compare pay rates for men and women doing work of equal value and so cannot be taken as evidence of unequal pay. However, examination of the median value allows for comparison between a theoretical middle ranking woman and her theoretical male counterpart.

At BVA Congress last year, two speakers – on a panel discussion about gender – said that at the current rate of change it would take until 2098 before the gender pay gap disappears. •

Vet Record is looking into the issue of discrimination in the vet workplace. If you have stories you wish to share and are willing to speak to a journalist, please contact jloeb{at}bmj.com

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