Gender pay disparity remains potent issue for veterinarians

Legal cases date from at least 1992 to present

June 3, 2022 (published)
Photo courtesy of Dr. Marjorie McMillan
In 1996, Dr. Marjorie McMillan won a six-figure discrimination case against Angell Animal Medical Center, where she worked for several years until she was suddenly fired. She now owns a practice in Walpole, Massachusetts.

Dr. Marjorie McMillan was scrubbed and gowned, ready to perform a myelogram, a form of radiographic imaging of the spine, on an anesthetized dog. At that moment, the head of her employer's human resources department walked in.

She pulled McMillan, then head of radiology at Angell Animal Medical Center, into a nearby office and fired her. McMillan, who previously had accused the renowned teaching hospital of pay discrimination based on gender, was escorted from the building.

"I had a dog on the table and had to leave it so they could walk me out like a criminal," McMillan recalled of that fateful afternoon in November 1991. "When I demanded equal pay for equal work, they retaliated." 

While her break from Angell was abrupt, McMillan's discontent with the institution had festered since 1987, when she learned that she earned thousands of dollars less than other department directors. "They hired a guy out of a residency program at the same salary as I was making, and I had worked as a department director for years," she recounted. "I knew because I had hired his wife as a part-time radiologist, and she told me."

McMillan complained and got a $10,000 raise, bumping her annual salary to $58,000. That placated her until 1989, when a local newspaper published the salaries of Angell department heads. The men featured in the article were paid $15,000 to $22,000 more than she. Angell higher-ups balked at her attempts to renegotiate, so she lodged a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. In 1992, she filed a suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, accusing Angell and its owner, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, of discrimination and intentional interference with contractual relations.

The legal battle ended four years later, in 1996, when a jury found in favor of McMillan, awarding her nearly $900,000 in damages plus attorneys' fees. Angell attorneys appealed. In 1998, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld the trial court decision but eliminated the punitive damages. "I got about $270,000 in back salary and interest and all my legal fees paid, which were about $800,000," McMillan said. 

In brief

Angell, like many other veterinary institutions, now has a system to guard against discrimination. "Since 2018, when the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act was signed into law, we have conducted regular wage reviews to ensure that wages are equitable across all programs and functions, including by gender," said Rob Halpin, chief communications officer. "It's also worth noting that 85% of our current workforce is female. 

"The McMillan case predates many of us (by a lot) ..." he concluded.

Even so, disparities persist in the profession. A recent Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine study documented a continued wage gap between male and female practitioners in the U.S., despite the fact that women have outnumbered men in the profession since 2009.

This year, another pay discrimination complaint landed in court. The case involves Zoetis Inc., which is expected on Monday to respond to allegations that it grossly underpaid a female anatomic pathologist compared with two male colleagues, both of whom performed the same job with far less experience. Dr. Frances Yvonne Schulman wants Zoetis to address a six-figure salary discrepancy that persisted during the year she worked in the company's reference laboratory division. The suit alleges violations of the Equal Pay Act and Title VII, as well as New Jersey equal pay and anti-discrimination laws.

Schulman isn't speaking publicly, on the advice of her lawyers. Officials at Zoetis have been mum, too. "As a matter of policy, we don't comment on pending litigation matters," Bill Price, vice president of Zoetis corporate communications, said in March, when the suit was filed.

Ethics challenge  

The passage of time has dulled the acrimony McMillan has felt since leaving Angell. However, she's spent 20-some years petitioning the American Veterinary Medical Association to strip the defendants named in the suit, Drs. Gus Thornton and Paul Gambardella, of their memberships for violating the organization's Principle of Veterinary Medical Ethics, which states that "veterinarians should strive to confront and reject all forms of prejudice and discrimination," including gender discrimination. 

"Whether I was discriminated against and unfairly paid is not a question; it is a legal fact determined by a United States district court in December 1995 and upheld in appeal in May 1999, by the First Circuit Court of Appeals," she wrote in a 2001 letter to Dr. Betsy Sigmon, then chair of the council. "This alone should be sufficient grounds for action by the Judicial Council."

Thornton, former MSPCA president, is deceased. Gambardella, then chief of surgery at Angell, is retired and when contacted by VIN News Service, declined to revisit the matter. 

The AVMA Judicial Council denied McMillan's petitions. In a letter dated Jan. 28, 2020, AVMA CEO Dr. Janet Donlin issued a final response to McMillan, who had repeatedly questioned the kind of evidence needed to meet the council's criteria for an ethics violation. "I want you to know that I really do understand your perspective and can see that this topic has caused you — and continues to cause you — frustration," Donlin wrote. "Because ethics complaints are always case-specific, there is not one set answer as to what constitutes sufficient evidence."

McMillan remains disappointed.   

"I've occasionally heard from women who've been discriminated against," she said, "and I'm sure none of them have the evidence that I had. The AVMA is part of the problem. They never answer the question about what constitutes sufficient evidence for them to take action in matters of gender discrimination."

Challenging bias in the workforce  

Photo courtesy of Dr. Shirley Johnston
Dr. Shirley Johnston became the profession's first female dean in 1998, when she founded the veterinary college at Western University of Health Sciences. Now retired, she says she encountered discrimination in a variety of ways.

Another notable gender bias suit was brought by Drs. Patricia Olson and Shirley Johnston, two former veterinary college professors who took the University of Minnesota to court in 1992.

Olson, then a clinical associate professor, had been passed over for a job as chair of the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences. The position went to a male candidate who, according to the lawsuit, had less formal education than Olson. 

She filed an internal university complaint, which was supported by Johnston, then associate dean of academic affairs. Johnston unwittingly became a central player in the controversy, she recalled in a recent interview by phone from her home in Oregon. "Patty was hired to perform my teaching duties when I was promoted as associate dean for academic affairs," Johnston, now retired, recounted. "After Patty filed the complaint, Dean David Thawley fired me as associate dean, causing me to go back to my faculty position and Patty to lose her job." 

Olson and Johnston sued the university for sex discrimination in employment, a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, filing the case in 1994 in U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota. "My goal for filing the complaint — first within the university — was to work with the university to change a system that did not favor women," Olson said by email, noting that she resorted to legal action "only when the university refused to work with us and 'lawyered up' to protect the institution."

Johnston accused Thawley of reducing the size of her research lab and bullying her until she resigned in June 1996 to take a department head position at Washington State University. When students in Minnesota discovered what happened, they marched on the dean's office in protest. The university newspaper, The Minnesota Daily, covered the trial extensively.

VIN News could not reach Thawley, also retired, for comment. Ultimately, the university prevailed. According to an article about the courtroom verdict published on Aug. 16, 1996, Thawley and his wife, Helen, were openly elated. "I feel relieved it's all over, after the long ordeal," Thawley reportedly said

Attorneys for Johnston and Olson appealed the verdict, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit dismissed the case.

Reflecting on the outcome, Johnston suspects that the jury did not sympathize with two professors who earned decent salaries and had other career prospects. Upon leaving the University of Minnesota, Olson found her way into nonprofits, becoming director of canine health and training for Guide Dogs for the Blind Inc., the largest guide dog school in North America. In 2004, she became president and CEO of the Morris Animal Foundation and later, chief veterinary adviser of the Animal Welfare and Research Institute. She's now retired and living in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Johnston and her husband, Gary, also a veterinarian and faculty member at the University of Minnesota, landed more lucrative teaching positions. "By the time of the trial, I had accepted a job at Washington State and my salary had gone way up, from $70,000 to $103,000," she recalled. "It was something I was asked about during the trial, and I don't think the jury felt we were significantly harmed by this episode.

"Of course, Patty and I didn't care about the money," she said.

What they wanted, Johnston said, was to end the university's favoritism toward male department heads. "But the problem is, when you're a victim, you cannot fix the system," she lamented. "All you can do is sue to get money. A financial settlement is the only outcome, and I think that's one reason why we did not prevail. We were not financially harmed enough."

Her attorney on the case, Eric Satre of Satre Law Firm in St. Paul, Minnesota, has a similar analysis. "There's unconscious bias and conscious bias, and [as a society], we are finally starting to deal with that," Satre told VIN News this week. "Twenty-five years ago, that wasn't the case. If the average juror is making $28,000 or $30,000, and you see a woman making $103,000, it's just not going to be on your radar that this woman has been damaged. We have a legal system that tries to do justice but discrimination cases, even now, are particularly challenging when you need direct evidence to prove it. And even when you have it, it's an uphill climb."

Despite the outcome, Olson said, the effort was worth it. "In my mind, we never truly lost this case," she said. "We won because the system changed, and there are now many women deans and department chairs at veterinary colleges." 

One of them is Dr. Laura Molgaard, hired last year as dean of the University of Minnesota veterinary college. Molgaard said she was unfamiliar with the 1994 suit but noted that the university has adopted anti-discrimination hiring policies in recent years and has dedicated salary equity review committees for each college. "They also have an annual review at an administrative level," Molgaard said, noting that the last time she checked, "there was little to no discrepancy [in pay] between men and women."

Making history

Johnston, for her part, got a chance to right some of the wrongs she perceived in academia when, in 1998, she became the nation's first woman to head a veterinary college. As founding dean of Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California, she immediately set about hiring a diverse faculty group. She also implemented an admissions process designed to enhance diversity in a profession comprised predominantly of white women (although men still disproportionately hold leadership positions).

"Everyone knows that it's hard to get people of color into veterinary medicine, but it's also hard to get men," Johnston said. "So what we did was put every applicant who was qualified into an acceptance pool and decided that we would try to accept equal numbers of men and women."

The result: Of 86 students enrolled in the program's 2003 inaugural class, 13 were men and 10 were Hispanic. The only selected black applicant turned down admission. 

While the outcome was still lopsided, the effort was limited by gender imbalance among applicants, which the school strived to overcome. Johnston said: "We were able to accept all the men who were qualified. I was really proud of that."

But the discrimination demons were not entirely behind her. At Western U, Johnston found out that she earned less than her male counterparts. This time, she opted not to confront the administration so that she could continue working internally to make conditions more equal.

"I was still making a lot of money, and I had been in academia for a long time," she said. "It's not like I fell off the turnip truck — I had seen and experienced a lot of discriminatory actions in my career. But challenging this issue would have hurt my ability to pursue my vision."

Part of that vision involved assembling a diverse staff. Among the program's earliest faculty hires was Dr. Phillip Nelson as associate dean, in 2005. Two years later, when Johnston became vice president for university advancement at Western U, Nelson stepped into the role of dean. He's one of seven black veterinarians to ever head a U.S. program.

Johnston left Western U in 2009 for the Michelson Found Animals Foundation in Los Angeles, where she was an adviser until retiring in 2016. Reflecting on her journey, she recalls awakening to gender bias in the early 1990s, while on a search committee for the University of Minnesota's vice president for health sciences.

"Before then, it never even occurred to me that women were underrepresented as leaders in academia," she recalled. "But there were 350 medical schools in the country and only a handful of female deans, so it was hard to ignore.

"Discrimination is more subtle now," she observed, "but it's still out there."

Update: In a response filed June 6, Zoetis asked New Jersey federal court Judge Julien X. Neils to partially dismiss the pay and gender discrimination lawsuit on grounds that two alleged violations of New Jersey statute do not apply because Dr. Frances Yvonne Schulman worked from her New Hampshire home and was hired by Zoetis Reference Labs, a division based in Louisville, Kentucky. Employment laws in New Jersey, where Zoetis is headquartered, include some of the strongest pay equity provisions in the country. 

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