Sunday, November 7, 2010

More on women in veterinary medicine

Some while back I wrote a post asking why there are so many more women than men in veterinary medicine. Recently, that post received a comment from Anne Lincoln, whose research into exactly that subject has just been published. Her findings are summarized at Eurekalert. You should read that summary, but in short:

Women now dominate the field of veterinary medicine — the result of a nearly 40-year trend that is likely to repeat itself in the fields of medicine and law...That's the conclusion of a new study that found three factors that appear to be driving the change: the 1972 federal amendment that outlaws discrimination against female students; male applicants to graduate schools who may be deterred by a growing number of women enrolling; and the increasing number of women earning Bachelor's degrees in numbers that far exceed those of male graduates, says sociologist Anne E. Lincoln.
I still have questions! If veterinary medicine, medicine, and law are all changing, why is veterinary medicine changing first? Why are more women earning bachelor’s degrees than men these days? Enquiring minds want to know. Hopefully Dr. Lincoln is continuing research in this area.

I also recently encountered Science IS Sexist, in which Alexandra Jellicoe asks, Do you think that women are more intuitively than logically intelligent and do you think that as scientific research has been designed to only include this logical, evidence based approach, it alienates women? She concludes that the female brain is likely to find the existing scientific research approach dull, dull, dull.  It is too narrow and systematic and does not maximise the use of the hive of activity going on in a female brain.  Men approach problem-solving from a task-oriented perspective while women typically solve problems more creatively.

What I find particularly interesting about this idea is that my friend LPK and I have observed that in vet school, dominated by women as it is, we tend to have different approaches to problems than most of our classmates. We tend to approach problems more intuitively and creatively; our classmates are more likely to approach problems more systematically. LPK and I also differ from most of our classmates in that we spent significant time out of school, in non-veterinary careers, before entering vet school. (Five years for her, more like 12 for me.)

So is vet school the place for women to go who think like men? Did it take me so long to realize I wanted to become a veterinarian because (in part) I had to overcome the obstacle of having different approaches to problems than the rest of the veterinary community?

Food for thought. I usually like to leave you with an opinion, but I don’t have one here, just questions.


  1. Hi - I received a Google alert that you had made another post on this topic, so I wanted to follow up. To answer your questions, first, more women have been graduating from college than men since the early 1980s. I'm not fully versed on the research underlying the causes, but understand that men are less likely to graduate from high school and go on to college than women and once there, are more likely to drop out of college. Some start their own businesses, some enter manual labor, etc.

    As to your second question, veterinary medicine is not the first occupation to feminize. The sex composition of occupations has changed over the years for a variety of reasons. For example, school teaching used to be dominated by men in the late 1800s, but has gradually come to be dominated by women, whereas motion picture screenwriting was first dominated by women in the early 20th century before becoming a male occupation. Women have historically had more restrictions on their labor than have men, so occupations are much more likely to feminize than masculinize.

    In terms of the time frame for the change, it doesn't happen equally in each occupation due to a process called "occupational jostling" by sociologists. That is, occupations "compete" for qualified entrants, so changes in sex composition are passed along from one occupation to another over time, rather than all at once. Pharmacy feminized before vet med, which is feminizing before medicine and law. I find that for veterinary medicine, most factors typically attributed as causal to feminization, like declining salaries, have similar effects on men AND women. That is, women care about money just as much as men do. The primary drivers of feminization in many fields is larger numbers of female college graduates and male avoidance of the feminizing classroom.

    Anne Lincoln

  2. Thanks so much for this followup, Dr. Lincoln. It's really interesting -- a lot of people seem to assume that women are in vet med because they care less about money than men do, for example, and I didn't know that there was evidence that that wasn't true.