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The gender divide

Truth be told, misogyny is a problem in veterinary medicine. Our increasingly female profession can take constructive steps to even the playing field.

The gender divide
Is it possible for misogyny to still be a problem in veterinary medicine? Of course.

Back in late July, U.S. Reps. Ted Yoho of Florida and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York had a bit of a run-in on the steps of the Capitol. The episode stemmed from policy comments that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez made during a speech and that Rep. Yoho strongly disagreed with. He used strong words when confronting her. In the end, a reporter overheard Rep. Yoho, a veterinarian, allegedly calling Rep. Ocasio-Cortez a derogatory term often used to describe women.

The politics of these individuals, who are at opposite ends of the spectrum, certainly played a role in how the incident was interpreted, but at its core, it spun into a discussion of sexism and misogyny in general and traditional male spaces specifically. I should note that Rep. Yoho denied any hostile characterization of the incident as well as any name-calling.

In a profession where tensions were already running high due to social unrest around issues of racism, numerous calls were made for organized veterinary medicine to condemn Rep. Yoho. Public statements ranged from outright condemnation to reaffirmation of diversity and inclusion values to acceptance that the incident was best interpreted as a “he said, she said” moment.

What Really Went On?

Given the role I play in the veterinary profession, I was frequently asked my thoughts on the incident. I will share my response here.

Imagine two individuals are genderless stick figures in a conflict. Based on publicly available reports, one stick figure aggressively challenges the other in front of witnesses at work. The interaction is unproductive in seeking resolution of the conflict; in fact, the interaction serves to heighten the conflict dramatically.

As a manager, would I want this kind of conflict between two genderless stick figures to play out at our place of business? No, I would not, because this is not how conflict between colleagues should be handled.

Now, add the demographic dimensions of our characters to the story. The stick figure who instigated the moment is a more senior employee in both age and experience, male and white. The other stick figure is a junior employee, female and Latinx. Not only do I not believe this kind of conflict is appropriate in the workplace, but now that I imagine the age, professional seniority, gender and race/ethnicity of my characters, the unspoken complexity of the interaction becomes a bit easier to see.

As a manager looking to resolve the conflict between these two stick figures, I would need to consider the unconscious perspectives of both of them and how my next move affects the whole team. I also would be asking myself, “Would this have played out the same way if the two figures identified as the same gender?”

Given the pervasiveness of misogyny in the workplace, I do not believe a same-gendered scenario would have received the attention this moment did.

Misogyny in the Workplace

Most observers saw issues of sexism and misogyny as being distinctive in the Yoho/AOC conflict. For clarity, sexism is defined as discrimination based on gender, while misogyny is sexism specifically leveled at women. According to the Pew Research Center, 42% of working women in the United States reported having experienced sex-based discrimination in the workplace, nearly twice the percentage of men reporting similar discrimination. This experience can be shaped by the manager’s gender and gender diversity in the work environment.

Sex-based discrimination and misogyny can show up in the workplace in several ways. More overt misogyny can appear as inappropriate jokes, hypergendered language, depreciation of women’s professional contributions, sexualized commentary and salary inequity.

Covert misogyny is often characterized by more subtle, microaggressive behavior. Women might be characterized as too emotional, overly ambitious and generally less competent. When being considered for promotion, women in these environs might be told they are “not quite ready for that kind of pressure.” In team meetings, women colleagues might consistently be the designated notetaker. Most challenging of all in misogynistic workplaces, a code of silence shuts down opportunities for discussion or complaint about any of these activities. This also means little recourse for victims because so much of sexist and misogynistic behavior is subtle, leaving would-be victims questioning what really happened.

Is Misogyny in Veterinary Medicine Even a Thing?

Women now make up more than half of U.S. veterinarians, with some estimates putting them at 60% of practitioners. According to data from the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, women comprise 81% of DVM students.

With women clearly being overrepresented in veterinary medicine, is it possible for misogyny to still be a problem in veterinary medicine? The short answer is, of course.

Salary inequity continues to plague the profession. Although the gender wage gap is small in the starting salaries for associate veterinarians, American Veterinary Medical Association data clearly show that the negligible wage gap grows to 20% by midcareer. For new graduates who went immediately into practice ownership in 2018, women start with a 25% salary differential that grows to 80% by midcareer years. Practice ownership among women continues to lag by 20%, meaning those wage gaps will persist if salary equity is not meaningfully addressed.

The leadership of organized veterinary medicine is changing. Recent AVMA data show near gender parity among volunteers for the House of Delegates. Disaggregated data show clear areas for improvement on the board of directors, where women comprise 35% of members.

But these are the visible ways in which misogyny shows up in veterinary medicine. As noted earlier, misogyny often can be far more insidious. Consider some of the language we hear used in and around the profession, particularly related to salary. Critics often note that the dramatic gender shift of the 1980s has resulted in stagnated salaries and that the overwhelming presence of women has made the profession less appealing to men. And to be clear, I have heard men and women assert these ideas to explain what has happened in veterinary medicine.

The inherent misogyny is crystal clear when you reframe these critiques: Women are subjected to lower salary expectations purely because of their gender, resulting in lower salaries for everyone, and men do not want to work with so many women because they do not want to be associated with gendered characteristics.

How to Combat Misogyny in Veterinary Medicine

Here are some simple ways to combat misogyny.

Leaders must commit to not just being anti-sexist for all genders, but especially so for all women, transgender women included. Leaders must take on the responsibility to promote both equality and equity for women in the workplace and in professional organizations.

  • See something, call it out. So much of misogynistic behavior is not called out because of fear of reprisal or due to dismissive attitudes like, “I didn’t mean it like that!” Upon hearing a colleague’s sexist comment or joke, privately point it out and, if the behavior persists, escalate as necessary for an appropriate remedy.
  • Maintain and enforce anti-discrimination policies, onboarding practices and training programs that address sexism and misogyny.
  • Use hiring practices that emphasize equality. This is more than just avoiding the clearly illegal questions like “Do you plan to have children and when?”

The numeric dominance of women in veterinary medicine sadly does not protect them from misogynistic treatment in all aspects of their professional lives. Such treatment is degrading, demoralizing and does not position the profession well for the future. Changing this requires all of us to be deliberate in our philosophies, policies, practices and characterizations of women in the profession.

Intentional efforts to promote equality are essential to a healthy, viable and thriving veterinary profession.

Diversity Toolbox columnist Dr. Lisa M. Greenhill is senior director for institutional research and diversity at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. AAVMC’s “Diversity & Inclusion” podcasts are available at bit.ly/2APLtk4.