The face of veterinary medicine has changed dramatically in little more than a generation. Until the 1950s, almost all veterinarians were men. In fact, many vet schools refused to admit women in the 1930s and 1940s.
The proportion of women graduating from veterinary school has gradually increased since the 1950s, and women now make up the overwhelming majority in all veterinary programs in the USA. Some veterinary schools purportedly have entering classes that contain no men at all.
The winter, 2009 issue of UC Davis Magazine reports on the situation at my alma mater.
[S]tudents in the D.V.M. program and a popular pre-vet undergraduate major are now 80 percent female.
That ratio at the School of Veterinary Medicine is a complete reversal from 35 years ago, when four out of five students were men.
Reasons for the increase in women, many veterinarians and students say, include declining discrimination, flexibility in work schedules, a shift in the profession from livestock to family pet care and better drugs and handling techniques that make physical strength less important. The decline in men may reflect salaries, which the veterinary association says were right behind those of doctors in the 1970s but are now about 60 percent of physicians’ average pay.
The demographic shift in veterinary medicine is obvious to everyone in the field. Most days I am the only male working in the office–all of the other vets and all of the receptionists, assistants and nurses generally are female.
Despite the speculation in the article, nobody truly understands why the gender balance has shifted in such an extreme way. I believe one of the reasons listed in the quote above is especially dubious. Comparing veterinarians to physicians is comparing apples to oranges–no vet I have met ever considered becoming a “real” doctor, and vice-versa. Also, it should be noted that most medical school programs are overwhelmingly female too.
Some in the profession blame the gender shift for the declining veterinary salaries mentioned in the article. I am very skeptical about that claim. In my experience the vets holding down salaries tend to be older and set in their ways. Those vets are mostly men.
Although the causes of veterinary medicine’s gender shift are unknown, I do believe that the extreme nature of the shift is bad for the profession. Just as our profession was weaker and less balanced when not enough women were in it, so it will be when there are not enough men.
Photo Credit: Andrew Dunn. Photo license: CC.