Advocacy in Action

The other evening I was perusing the March 14 issue of the Virginia Law Review when I came across a study1 examining the issue of gender in the United States Supreme Court. The study evaluated the number of times members of the court or the lawyers arguing cases interrupted justices on the basis of gender. The study examined how justices compete to have influence at oral arguments by evaluating the extent to which the justices interrupt each other. One of the interesting findings was that the female justices were interrupted at disproportionate rates by their male colleagues, as well as by male advocates. The researchers pondered the implications of this relative to the level of respect afforded to the justices. As a card-carrying member of the “good ol’ boys club” (or Fat Old Veterinarians as I have been “affectionately” referred to), the study made me wonder how our female veterinary members perceive their interactions with male colleagues in swine veterinary medicine.

I have heard female veterinarians express concerns that they don’t feel they are taken as seriously as their male counterparts (even when you remove any age bias). When performing a similar function or when included in an “advisory” or “working group” setting, their perception was that their input was not as valued as that of contemporary male colleagues – receiving a sort of dismissive “pat on the head.” So I thought I would use this month’s column to present the topic and perhaps stimulate some thought among our members and maybe some conversation.

While some might say that perception is not reality, the fact that we have members of our profession who feel undervalued should concern us. It’s not only perception, however. There have been numerous studies showing a gender disparity across many professions. Generally these studies focus on salary disparity but, while that’s certainly an important topic, it’s not really my focus in this article. I’m more interested in the perceived intrinsic value we all bring to this profession and whether or not a disparity exists based on gender bias alone.

There have been studies indicating that women tend to exhibit less confidence and competitiveness than their male counterparts2 and feel they have less influence in group settings.3 The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) explored this question of the influence self-confidence might have on gender disparity in veterinary medicine as part of their 2015 AVMA Employment Survey. Survey respondents were asked to self-assess their level of confidence in performing 12 clinical skills associated with the practice of veterinary medicine. For all 12 skills assessed, female respondents rated their confidence level higher than the male respondents rated their own level of confidence. This would seem to indicate that, at least among the respondents in this survey, self-confidence was not a factor supporting the observed gender bias.

A randomized double-blind study4 published in 2012 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explored the issue of gender bias in academic science. Science faculty from research-intensive universities rated the application materials of a student, who was randomly assigned either a male or female name, for a laboratory manager position. Faculty participants – both male and female – rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hirable than the (identical) female applicant. Interestingly, both female and male faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student. The study also concluded that preexisting subtle bias against women was associated with less support for the female student.

Although I have never personally managed either male or female veterinarians in a clinical capacity, from my interactions with our membership, there doesn’t appear to me to be any obvious gender-based competency variability among our members. The female swine veterinarians I have interacted with have been as confident, competent, and capable as any of their male colleagues. They fulfill every role in our profession, including research, academia, practice, government, technical service, etc. The one notable exception, however, is practice ownership. Although I have no actual figures to back this up, I feel confident in saying that there are disproportionately fewer female practice owners when compared to male cohorts. As with any discussion of gender disparity, there are likely many reasons for this other than gender bias.

As we are well aware, females have become the majority gender in the veterinary profession. At the American Association of Swine Veterinarians (AASV), we only began requesting gender information as part of the membership application-renewal process since 2012 – so not long enough to provide reliable trend information. However, I think it is evident that our membership is following this same trend. One index of the rate of female introduction into the AASV might be the gender information provided by respondents to the AASV Salary Survey. These results show a steady increase in female respondents in each survey from 2002 to 2014 (12% to 23% female respondents respectively).5

So, do women have a role in addressing the issue of gender bias? I’m sure they must, but I also realize that it can be a bit of a difficult position if you don’t feel supported in your job or group setting. Far be it for me to offer advice to women, but, at the very least, women can help raise awareness of the issue when it occurs. They also need to make sure all of us are aware of their accomplishments, interests, and areas of expertise and continue to volunteer to participate and provide their opinions and expertise whenever possible.

As I was exploring this issue, I came across the Association for Women Veterinarians (AWV). The AWV, or Women’s Veterinary Association as it was known then, was formed in 1947. The association’s founder, Dr Mary Knight Dunlap, said she started the organization because of a sense of “duty to those who followed me…so that they don’t make the same fool mistakes I did.” One of the founding goals of the association was to recruit women into the veterinary profession. The association produced a bulletin that provided information on the annual meetings of the AWV, issues of interest to women veterinarians, and a means for women veterinarians to voice support for their peers. The issue of gender bias was a frequent topic of discussion in these bulletins. It’s interesting that, although the percentage of women veterinarians increased from a handful in 1947 to a majority of the profession by the 2000s, the association disbanded in 2012 due to a lack of membership. Washington State University currently houses the Association for Women Veterinarians Bulletin collection.

In case you’re wondering, the first female veterinarian, Dr Mignon Nicholson, graduated from McKillip Veterinary College in Chicago in 1903. Many veterinary colleges in the United States actually refused to admit women until enactment of the Civil Rights Act and the Veterinary Medical Education Act in the mid-1960s finally opened the doors to female students. In the 1970s, women accounted for 16.8% of graduates from veterinary schools. This grew to 44.3 percent in the 1980s, with women in veterinary schools starting to outnumber men in the early 1990s (65.8% of US veterinary graduates in 1996, according to AVMA surveys).6

There are many of you out there much more qualified than I am to write this article, and hopefully I’ll hear back from you. My intent was to raise awareness of an issue I’ve heard expressed among some of our colleagues. My hope is that this will stimulate all of us to think about how we perceive our colleagues and respect the talents and experiences each of us brings to this profession. Google defines the word respect as “a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.” Being a member of the Fat Old Veterinarians club, I also like the way Aretha Franklin put it, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T; Find out what it means to me…” (Ignore the fact that the lyrics to that song were actually written by a man – Otis Redding).


1. Jacobi T, Schweers D. Justice, Interrupted: The Effect of Gender, Ideology and Seniority at Supreme Court Oral Arguments (March 14, 2017). Virginia Law Review, Forthcoming; Northwestern Law & Econ Research Paper No. 17-03. Available at SSRN Accessed 12 May 2017.

2. Lirgg C. Gender differences in self-confidence in physical activity: A meta-analysis of recent studies. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 1991;8:294–310.

3. Guzzetti B, Williams W. Gender, text, and discussion: Examining intellectual safety in the science classroom. Journal of Research and Science Teaching. 1996;33:5–20.

4. Moss-Racusin CA, Dovidio JF, Brescoll VL, Graham MJ, Handelsman J. Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2012;109:16474–16479.

5. American Association of Swine Veterinarians. 2014 AASV Salary Survey Results; 2014:2.

6. Tom McPheron. 2007 is DVM Year of the Woman. JAVMA News, June 15, 2007 (posted June 1, 2017).

Harry Snelson, DVM
Director of Communications