Veterinarian targets shortage of women among profession’s leaders

Men top hierarchy, yet women are majority

August 7, 2013 (published)
By Edie Lau

Photo by Scott Nolen/AVMA
Dr. Karen Bradley founded the Women’s Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative to attract more women into leading roles in professional organizations.

The first time Dr. Karen Bradley traveled as a state representative to a gathering of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) House of Delegates, she brought along her 7-month-old daughter and her mother to help look after the baby.

At the meeting, Bradley asked, “Why don’t we have day care available for people?” Another delegate, a father about her age, agreed. But the suggestion was irrelevant for most of the rest of the delegates — people in their 50s, 60s and 70s, chiefly men.

Five years later, not much has changed in the demographics of veterinary medicine’s dominant professional organization. By Bradley’s count, 29 percent of the 136 members of the House of Delegates this year are women.

A similar proportion of women — 33 percent — comprise AVMA councils, committees and the like. Currently, the 15 voting members of the Executive Board, which makes many of the organization’s decisions, are men. (The board also has three non-voting members, two of them women.)

In a country that has yet to elect a female president and in which women make up fewer than 15 percent of Fortune 500 company executive officers, those AVMA gender statistics may be unsurprising. But veterinary medicine holds an unusual position among occupations in America. The profession has shifted from male majority to female majority at a rate such that by 2030, seven out of 10 veterinarians will be women, according to a recent projection by The Center for Health Workforce Studies.

With that trend in mind, Bradley established the Women’s Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative, a campaign to draw more women into positions of leadership in veterinary organizations, so those organizations can better reflect, understand and serve their constituents.

“There are differences in how males approach things and females approach things. You can read Lean In or 20 other books about that,” Bradley said, referring to Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s book calling for more female leaders in government and industry.

The strategy of the veterinary leadership initiative is simple: Tap the power of social media to reach, invite and enable female veterinarians to get involved.

“There are plenty of women who are ready for this challenge, but they maybe haven’t given it much thought,” said Bradley. “… Women (often) need to be told, ‘You would be good at this,’ or asked to participate.”

She speaks from experience. In 2003, the same year Bradley became a co-owner of her practice in Vermont, she became involved with her state veterinary medical association at the invitation of a colleague. The colleague chaired the group’s committee on animal welfare, a subject that interested Bradley. She later chaired the committee herself and went on to take part in legislative activities at the state capitol.

In 2008, Bradley stepped into AVMA politics for the first time as an alternate delegate in the House of Delegates. At her first meeting, the composition of the group surprised her so much, Bradley picked up the roster to count the women. She found 27, maybe 28, out of 136.

Seeing a gender imbalance was new for Bradley. “In Vermont, we’ve been gender-diverse for years,” she said. “Our (state) board has been 50-50, or 60-40 leaning toward women, for two decades.”

The shift toward a female majority in the profession has been brewing since the mid-1980s, when women began outnumbering men in veterinary school. Today, women make up more than 78 percent of veterinary students. Profession-wide, women became the majority in 2009. In 2012, the latest year for which figures are available, women comprised 54 percent of U.S. veterinarians.

Bradley heard and believed the sentiment that the share of women in leadership positions naturally would reflect the population in time. But seven years since she noticed the disparity, Bradley said, “It’s not happening.”

She began reading up on the subject and realized that a variety of factors serve to maintain the status quo.

One issue, she said, is the pipeline: Those landing leading roles tend to work their way up a ladder over years. “Our pipeline has not been structured to be more creative and feed people from the sides instead of straight up that ladder,” Bradley said. She added with a laugh, “Some aren’t getting off the ladder when others come up. That’s an issue.”

Within the House of Delegates, for example, no term limits exist; some delegates have held their positions for more than a decade.

Another hurdle is networking. “Women network differently from men, and if the person in the leadership roles are men, they’re going to turn to those they’ve been comfortable with, who look like them and act like them,” she said. “We have to recognize that’s our human nature, to recognize our biases.”

As she contemplated how to counter the status quo, Bradley realized: “I can’t change what other people do, but I can change what I do.” That’s when she decided to recruit female colleagues using social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn.

She teamed up with Dr. Stacy Pritt, a veterinarian in the biomedical research industry who tapped her web-developer husband to build the project a website.

Besides making connections and dispensing invitations and encouragement, Bradley said, the initiative seeks to generate and disseminate ideas for making participation fit better into busy schedules.

For example, she said, “You can lead (a group) on a conference call, and you can lead on the Internet and by email, and have one in-person meeting a year.”

As a 43-year-old married mother of two young children as well as a practice co-owner, Bradley has learned the art of juggling. Part of the trick, she said, is to accept that not everything needs to be done flawlessly.

“I don’t always do it right,” she said. “I try to give myself some slack. You just have to say, ‘I’m not going to get it right or perfect every time.’ ”

The effort to involve more women in veterinary leadership is not a women-only endeavor. The project counts men among its mentors and supporters. “This is not man-bashing,” Bradley said.

And focusing on expanding the ranks of women is just a start toward diversifying the leadership. Bradley said there’s a need to include people of all ages, races and sexual orientations.

The initiative aims to diversify not only the AVMA and state veterinary medical associations but veterinary institutions as a whole, including corporations and academia.

As for the AVMA, a more diverse leadership could help address concerns among many members that the organization represents them poorly, Bradley said, although the initiative was not conceived for that particular purpose.

“If you look to a board and it’s diverse, you may trust the decisions of the board more than if it’s all one demographic and it’s not your demographic,” she said.

Bradley said she’d like also to see entrenched leaders willingly step aside for fresh players. “As leaders, we have a shelf life,” she said.

Editor’s note: This article has been changed from the original to correct a statement about when women became a majority in the veterinary profession. The estimated number of all female veterinarians surpassed the estimated number of all male veterinarians in 2009; the number of female members of the American Veterinary Medical Association exceeded the number of male members in 2011.

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