Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Women in veterinary medicine

Men make up around 12% of the students in my veterinary school. Yesterday, a guest lecturer commented on that, and noted that in another school, a recent year had no male students at all. I posted a while back about the contributions of improved large animal sedation to the introduction of women into veterinary medicine, which was once a male-dominated profession. Commenters have noted that other factors were almost certainly in play as well. But improved sedation methods in large animals aren’t going to explain why women are starting to dominate this profession rather than being content with half of it.

Interestingly, women do not dominate human medical schools in the same way. Johns Hopkins reports that their classes are made up of 50/50 male and female students. There has also been some commentary in the blogosphere recently about how many fewer female science bloggers are out there, with notes that women are as likely as men to get PhDs, but less likely to stay in academia.

So why are there more women becoming veterinarians these days than men? I don’t think anyone knows. I have two personal theories:
  • Vet med is often seen as a caretaking profession, something that may appeal strongly to more women than men.
  • Why vet med and not human med? One difference is that vet med pays a lot less. Are women more tolerant of low pay than men?
Any other ideas?


  1. Interesting--I'll have a post up at my place tomorrow.

  2. My youngest sister is a vet, and thinks that women are more likely to go into vet med than human med because they have more empathy for animals which cannot communicate how they feel in words, as humans do.

  3. How does it break down by sub-specialty? Are there more men studying to work with large farm animals, or to be health inspectors? And perhaps more women going into small-animal or equine medicine? Decades ago, and in a country far, far away, I was in vet school and the sex ratio was about 50-50, but men were mostly rural and going to treat cows, while women were mostly urban, studying to treat pets.

  4. Baroque: Interesting! Seems very possible

    Coturnix: As you have probably already seen, there's some interesting discussion about farm vets in the comments at Tara's followup post. Yeah, farm animal vets tend to be more male. At my school, the food animal medicine faculty are almost entirely male, and the ones I think of as "the cow guys" are all male. Though for what it's worth, of the students in my class who are interested in farm animal medicine, more of them are female. It's such a small number that I hesitate to draw conclusions from it, though; very few of us are interested in food animal medicine.

  5. I'm curious if the barrier to entry for large animal vets is not just physically handling large animals but having to gain confidence from male farmers? I know a few farmers and the older ones at least would have been a bit dubious of a "woman vet's" abilities.

    As an aside, as a guy who has stood next to cows and horses, I'm not really sure any extra physical strength being male provides is very useful. I suspect self-confidence and willful ignorance about what an animal that outweighs you by a ton (at least) can do to you is far more important than any strength benefit provides. I remember my uncle had a little jack russelesque mutt that did as good as a sheep dog at herding cows and sheep. One well placed kick from a single cow would have taken either of them out, but they knew that would never happen and went within inches of their rear legs all the time.

    Confidence and ignoring danger, weirdly hard yet useful skills.

  6. Good points, and I think you may well be right. For what it's worth, the women in my class that I see intending to go into food animal medicine are a very confident bunch. I wonder what the ones who changed their minds before applying were like? Less confident? Had trouble finding supportive role models?

    The idea that "there are fewer food animal vets entering, therefore fewer men" has been taken up more on Tara Smith's blog -- see her link, above. I would note that we should be careful with terminology, as equine medicine is also considered large animal medicine, and there are plenty of women going into that area.

    Your insights about ignoring danger are good ones. I definitely have problems handling large animals because I overthink. One skill I'm trying to learn is the skill of just turning my brain off at times.

  7. Your ratio is much more female-weighted than ours at Georgia. Ours is more like 25% male. I wonder why that is.

  8. Mr Duncan: I wonder what the difference is in the proportions of students interested in food animal medicine (more often men, very few at my school) there?

  9. My research on this topic was recently published:


    Glad to see interest in this topic!

    Anne E. Lincoln

  10. I'm a PhD student in a non-animal-handling field, but the lab is pretty wide-ranging in its interests and I find myself helping another PhD student with her research, which involves toxicology and juvenile pigs.

    About once a week I have to go over to the animal care facility at the back of the Vet Med. building to hold a pig while the veterinarian (a man from Ukraine with interesting opinions of his own on this subject) takes a blood sample. The reason the PhD student doesn't do this herself, as stated by her, is that she is not physically strong enough to pickup and hold a 20-kg pig; two other male graduate students are also helping in this way.

    The vet and I frequently discuss this very issue. I don't know what the gender ratio is at this vet school, but most of the other people I see in the building are certainly women, even if I don't know if they are students or faculty or something else. He is of the opinion that women will avoid going into large-animal specializations because of the need for high upper-body strength. I think the advances in sedatives and other drug techniques for large animals could easily be a big part of increasing numbers of women vets working with large animals.

    Rambling, long-winded commentary aside, I found this blog post interesting. Thanks for putting it up.

  11. Interesting. I have said in the past that I wouldn't go into a large animal specialization because I'm not physically strong enough, but then, I have back problems. We do have students at my school interested in cows and horses who are female. In fact, I know one woman who is interested in equine medicine who is really tiny, something just over 5 feet tall (I saw her being hauled around by a mastiff on a leash one day). Maybe I should ask her if her size is ever an issue; I'd be curious.

  12. Interestingly, women do not dominate human medical schools in the same way.

  13. I thought they made up more than 50% of medical schools, though -- am I wrong?