The Gender Pay Gap
Why More Women in Vet Med Does Not Equal Gender Equality
by Kristen Green Seymour
Often, when gender equality or gender diversity in the workplace is discussed, the conversation focuses on representation. And moral arguments about the importance of diversity in leadership notwithstanding, the benefits are clear: Companies with women in leadership roles tend to be more profitable.
In veterinary medicine, though, women are certainly represented. More than 60% of practicing veterinarians are female and that figure is rising, according to the Annual Data Report 2021–2022 by the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC), which found that 83.7% of the class of 2025 were female (15.9% were male and 0.4% selected a gender not listed) and 87.3% of applicants were female (12% were male and 0.7% selected a gender not listed).
But make no mistake; that doesn’t mean we’ve achieved gender equality. Despite the field skewing strongly female, the average male income is significantly higher; that difference is most prominent with recent graduates and the upper 50% of earners. Men are also more likely to own practices, according to a 2015 special report in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
The lead author for that special report, Samantha Morello, DVM, DACVS (LA), is a board-certified large animal surgeon who spent over a decade as an academic professor researching gender and veterinary workforce dynamics. She currently works in management consulting and is an adjunct professor with the Cornell Center for Veterinary Business and Entrepreneurship. While she acknowledged that there’s no single reason for the gap, she said, “Researchers have done a good job of starting to pick out some of the larger factors that can contribute to how people earn—and then show how those factors can be different between men and women, and how men and women ultimately earn different amounts of money.”
The Impact of Gendered Expectations
Understanding how traditional workplace systems came to be is the best way to understand how gendered expectations affect women in the workplace, said E. Scott Osborne, gender equality advocate and president of the Florida-based women’s rights organization Through Women’s Eyes.
—E. SCOTT OSBORNE, PRESIDENT OF THROUGH WOMEN’S EYES
“We’ve got entire industries, professions, and workforces that were designed by men,” she said. “Whether it be the physical environment, the corporate hierarchy, the times they work, the way people advance, the criteria they’re promoted on—it was all designed by men. It’s simply a statement of fact that, until literally the last half century, men created the systems to meet the needs, goals, priorities, and schedules of men,” she said. And this all came to be during a time when many of those men had a wife who did not work outside the home.
We now live in a world where many women (56.6% in 2020 compared to 67.7% of men) are in the labor force, but those systems have largely remained unchanged. So, even though women are conditioned to have certain values traditionally considered feminine, like being humble or caring for others, those are not necessarily qualities that lead women to excel in leadership—not because they aren’t valuable qualities, but because they don’t fit into those systems.
It’s essential to remember that these gendered qualities, like men being profit-motivated and women being caretakers, are just that—arbitrary qualities, which are socialized into people. “It’s a cumulative thing that starts very early,” Osborne said. “We get it from media, and we get it from our parents, and we get it from our teachers, and it all accumulates, but it’s not biological.”
The Importance of Negotiation
Data shows that men make more money for every year of experience compared to women. And there’s no denying that money matters—but it’s not everything. There’s also plenty we can do to address gender inequity on the individual, practice, and industry-wide levels.
A good place for women in veterinary medicine to start is by negotiating—beginning with the salary at their first job. But that may not be quite as simple as it sounds.
“On a very basic level, I think that women are disadvantaged in negotiation,” Morello said. “Women tend to negotiate less, and when they do negotiate, they may be less successful compared with men because women tend to be viewed more negatively compared with men who are viewed more positively when they ask for a higher salary.”
Rather than being put off by that, suggested Morello, go into a salary negotiation fully prepared, understanding not only what to ask for in terms of salary, but also other benefits like 401(k), healthcare, sign-on bonus, and vacation time. Having a mentor, or at least having peers who can share current numbers, is the best way for women to empower themselves.
The Need for Pay Transparency
That sharing of information and pay transparency can go a long way toward giving a veterinarian at any stage of career the confidence needed to negotiate. But the need for pay transparency goes beyond that, because it also leads to accountability in hiring and management, said Osborne.
Salary transparency and negotiation is especially important for new veterinarians going into their first job. “That sets the tone for your earning trajectory throughout the rest of your life, and if you start off low, you’ll be scrambling to catch up,” Morello said. “This is actually a lot of what fuels the lifetime earning gap between men and women. Women start out lower, or, when they experience some income loss—like when they’re having children—it takes a long time to catch up.”
—SAMANTHA MORELLO, DVM, DACVS (LA)
Abolishing the Motherhood Penalty
For many women, the time away from work to raise a family is a significant enough hurdle that it’s got a name: the motherhood penalty. “If women were never mothers, we would equivalate much more rapidly,” Osborne said. The years spent out of the office come at a critical time of potential career growth that most of their male peers need not miss when becoming fathers.
Although offering adequate maternal leave might seem like the best solution, parental leave for all genders must be the goal. “If you’re going to get around the motherhood penalty, you have to start paying leave benefits for men and women equally,” Osborne said. “Then, the woman is not inherently penalized for taking that leave.” This is beneficial for fatherhood and families in general, but, more importantly, it shifts what we’ve traditionally considered motherhood responsibilities to family responsibilities. It can also reduce unconscious biases affecting the hiring process since both male and female employees would have the opportunity to take leave.
Notably, this change isn’t only beneficial for veterinarians, but practices, too, says Laura Javsicas, VMD, DACVIM, and managing partner at Rhinebeck Equine in Rhinebeck, New York. “We started offering two months paid bonding leave about two years ago,” she said, which has helped them attract top talent. And their parental support doesn’t end there; they provide a structure for flexible scheduling, too. “Our ambulatory vets are all working three- to four-day work weeks and rotate on-call,” she said. “We have an assigned ambulatory on-call vet every weekday, which allows people to be done on time on the other days so they can attend their kids’ activities, exercise classes, and more.”
Reconsidering Performance Indicators
“With very few exceptions, [in veterinary medicine] you make more money the more you work,” Morello said, “and both men and women work plenty hard.” Historically, though, men have tended to prioritize working more hours and earning money over other aspects of their lives, whereas (due to those gendered expectations and traditional systems) women have often been motivated by other parts of their lives outside of work, like family.
In a production-based environment like we see in so many veterinary practices, working longer hours not only leads to greater income but also ticks off traditional productivity and profitability performance indicators that may also lead to promotions and recognition. Those indicators are nice and quantifiable—but it goes without saying that they don’t necessarily mean a better client experience or patient care.
Remember, these differences in how genders tend to practice medicine is not because women have the XX chromosome, said Osborne, but because women have been socialized since birth by parents, media, and society in general to have certain cues. “Men could be socialized to have those, too,” she said. “We’re not born with it, but we’ve been socialized to be more able to communicate and be more responsive.”
Valuable as those soft skills are in vet med, they’re less likely to show up as performance indicators when it’s time to hire or promote employees—unless a practice includes those skills in their evaluations, as is the case with VetTriage, said founder, owner, and chief medical officer Shadi Ireifej, DVM, DACVS. Their hiring process focuses on experience first and foremost, but, he said, “The decision to hire is made based on their professional experience and the interview, in which caring and compassionate personalities are the most important to success in our practice.”
Barriers to Advancement
It’s possible that gender bias impacts hiring decisions in certain situations, but Morello noted that the veterinary industry is in a workforce crisis. “I don’t think people are waiting around, hoping for a man to apply for their job when so few men are graduating from veterinary schools,” she said. “This may have been an issue 25 or 30 years ago, but today, I think that’s less likely to happen.”
Still, Osborne said that advancement is a common problem for women, especially in corporate environments due to what’s sometimes called the middle manager problem. “Men have historically been at that middle manager level, and research has shown that that’s a real bottleneck for women moving up,” Osborne said. “They’re promoting people most like them and using the kinds of performance indicators that are sometimes called male-oriented.”
For that reason, she said, having a couple of women on a board isn’t enough: “You have to hold managers accountable for diversity and inclusion.”
The Nuances of Practice Ownership
“One of the biggest [wage gap factors] that we end up talking about is that men own practices more frequently than women do, and practice ownership is a great builder of wealth compared to being an associate or being an employee,” Morello said.
This data is consistent, but it doesn’t show the entire picture. “We know that people who own larger practices, who may only be shareholders, actually earn more money as practice owners than somebody who is a solo practice owner,” Morello said. The data does not go into those details, nor does it show duration of practice ownership, which also impacts profitability.
Plus, there’s the fact that going into practice ownership isn’t always just about income—and it’s not for everyone. “It’s a job on top of a job,” Morello said, adding that most practice owners work more than 60 hours a week. “There are some things that people might not want to take on in their professional lives, given what they want to be doing in their personal lives.”
She’s seen a number of female equine veterinarians buy out solo and two-person equine practices, and income was not the main motivation. “They did it because they wanted autonomy; they wanted flexibility in how they worked,” she said. “It wasn’t to work more hours but to have more control over their schedules so they could spend more time doing the things they wanted to do, and also so they could practice the way they wanted to practice—by their own values and on their own timelines.”
Specialty Medicine as a Gendered Choice
Although Morello’s research found no evidence of gender bias in the Veterinary Internship and Residency Match Program, she said, “We’ve seen men congregate in greater proportions in some of the higher earning specialties, like surgery, for example.” This appears to be due to the students’ choice, with female veterinary graduates seeming less likely to apply for residencies than males—and therefore could conceivably be addressed with recruiting practices.
Beyond the Binary
The higher visibility of trans, nonbinary, and other gender nonconforming kids and young adults leads Morello to believe that, in the coming years, we’ll see substantial representation of those demographics in practicing veterinarians. Data collected by the AAVMC around gender identity of those entering vet school shows that number growing, but currently, it still remains very small, and in Morello’s own research, there simply have not yet been enough data points to report on.
For now, though, Osborne pointed out that working toward gender equality benefits everybody, gender nonconforming individuals included. “Today, these changes affect mostly women because they’re [represented] in the industry,” she said, “but we know that increasingly, there are more and more people who don’t identify with the gender binary—and making these changes will make it open to all.”
In 2021, Mars, Incorporated, launched a #HereToBeHeard listening campaign to find out what women believed needed to change in order for them to reach their full potential. More than 10,000 women from around the world responded, and the top three recommendations for businesses were
- to make gender-balanced leadership a priority,
- embrace flexible work,
- and step up parental leave.
On an industry level and a practice level, many of the gender diversity challenges listed above would see vast improvements with those changes implemented. But don’t forget that change begins with each of us, and that means not only calling out bias when we see it but challenging the existing workplace systems. “When you realize that the entire structure of our workforce and our economy was made by and for men, it’s worth thinking about what an alternative world, a feminist world, would look like,” Osborne said. “How could we redesign things? Because it doesn’t have to be the way it’s been done all along.”
Kristen Seymour is a freelance writer based in Sarasota, Florida. She’s a frequent contributor to many pet-focused publications including HealthyPet Magazine, USA Today’s Pet Guide, Vetstreet.com, DailyPaws.com, Happy Paws, and more.
Photo credits: ©AAHA/Robin Taylor, Feodora Chiosea/iStock via Getty Images Plus, bagira22/iStock via Getty Images Plus, fizkes/iStock via Getty Images Plus, Feodora Chiosea/iStock via Getty Images Plus, O_Lypa/iStock via Getty Images Plus