The Diversity of Diversity
History shows that we must raise our consciousness and learn to embrace inclusion and the entire spectrum of people in the veterinary profession.
Diversity is no stranger to veterinarians. This profession is composed of people who understand biodiversity and the earth’s self-regulating system that balances the populations and habitats of all species, humans included. In their day-to-day practice, veterinary team members are likely to see all kinds of animals, from snakes to dogs, gerbils to cats, frogs to horses. And they are likely to see a wide variety of concerns and ailments, from urinary infections to diabetes to cancer to severe wounds. A diversity of practices exists within the profession: the agrarian and farm-call veterinarian, the companion animal and brick-and-mortar veterinarian, and now, the curbside veterinarian.
In any given practice are professionals from a variety of educational programs, each with unique contributions. The veterinary profession has diverse specializations like toxicology, anesthesia, ophthalmology, pathology, radiology and dentistry. More recently, some veterinarians focus on One Health discussions and the positive contribution of pets to human health.
All these diversities call for respect and tolerance, which might begin by acknowledging and appreciating where teammates went to veterinary school, how much additional training they had, and with which animals they’ve had experience.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)
On a broader scale, the veterinary profession has addressed the notion of DEI since 2004, and more recently, when the American Veterinary Medical Association board of directors teamed with the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges to create the Commission for a Diverse, Equitable and Inclusive Veterinary Profession. Likewise, the AVMA is collaborating with 10 DEI-focused affinity organizations led by the Multicultural Veterinary Medical Association. We also have the student-run Veterinarians as One Inclusive Community for Empowerment (VOICE).
Our challenge is to continue the discussion and apply it to our individual practices. As we do, we find ourselves bombarded with words and terms, many of which might be new to us. These terms — BIPOC, cisgender, intersectionality and Latinx to name just a few — illustrate how diverse the topic of diversity really is.
Recently, I saw T-shirts stating, “Words Have Meaning.” Knowing that our words have an impact — to comfort or honor, or to offend and hurt — we need to use the correct terms and understand their meaning. While diversity issues go deeper than just the words, understanding the right words and how to use them is an excellent place to begin.
The term BIPOC, referring to Black, Indigenous and people of color, reminds us how diverse race and ethnicity are. Likewise, the term Latinx, as a gender-neutral term, recognizes the diversity within the Latin community. To bring an appreciation of DEI to our practices, we need to hear the voices of minority veterinarians who speak of being castigated and marginalized, talked over, ignored or summarily dismissed. What about those experiencing intersectionality — combining marginal characteristics, such as a Black female or gay Latinx?
How much do we understand BIPOC? Do we know how people of color feel in the very white veterinary profession? How aware are we of the looks, stares and subtle gestures that tell marginalized people they are not welcome? How welcoming are we to BIPOC as teammates and clients? How committed are we to being antiracist?
With teammates of diverse races and cultural origins, we have an opportunity or a dilemma. Do I comment on my colleagues’ ethnicity and perhaps accentuate the “otherness,” or do I say nothing as if to say, “I’m colorblind” or “I’m ethnicity blind”? And does my ignoring the “otherness” negate the personal history and culture?
Getting comfortable being uncomfortable is now the name of the game, which might mean watching out for microaggressions. In an article written by Jim Bell and published by the Southern California Veterinary Medical Association — read it at bit.ly/3xGkTVn — Dr. Kemba Marshall advises us to be ready to “speak up and say someone’s behavior is not appropriate.” Bringing in DEI experts can be helpful. Finding ways to embrace and learn about our team members’ customs, languages, and beliefs enables us to avoid looking at everything in an ethnocentric way. At the same time, we will convey belonging and enrich the entire team.
Your practice likely is confronting the challenge of diversity with the realization that your teammates represent diverse chronological backgrounds. You might have:
- Baby boomers (now reaching the ages 57 to 75).
- Gen Xers (41-56).
- Gen Yers or millennials (25-40).
- Gen Zers (roughly 9-24).
You might hear comments such as “experienced veterinarians” and “veterinarians just out of school.” Do those words carry some critical judgment? Appreciating the concerns and styles of each cohort is an undertaking that can result in a more satisfying and congenial workplace. We can take time to appreciate the generational diversity in our midst. And we can learn about the favorite music, memorable experiences and life-determining events in our teammates’ backgrounds.
The veterinary profession’s gender balance has changed from predominantly male in the 1970s to what is now about 55% female. When women began to enter the field in more significant numbers, one might have heard a man asking for “some guys to help move the tables,” only to be reminded that women in the room were capable of moving tables. Women have gained recognition. According to a Today’s Veterinary Practice article available at bit.ly/history-TVP, women held 42% of veterinary school administrative positions in 2017.
Gay and lesbian veterinarians have been slower to gain recognition and acceptance. Since, generally speaking, veterinary schools were located at agricultural land-grant colleges and were unfriendly toward diversity, what’s not surprising is that the urban, Philadelphia-based University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine became the home of the first LGBT veterinary medical student network. Dr. Don Stremme remembers early gatherings of trangender veterinarians — mostly underground meetings at conferences to help attendees realize they weren’t alone. Then, Drs. Jeffery Collins and Herman Westmoreland courageously placed an ad in The Advocate announcing the first gathering of the Association for Gay Veterinarians (AG Vets). The meeting took place in Las Vegas during the AVMA’s 1978 convention.
AG Vets evolved over the years and in 2018 changed its name to Pride Veterinary Medical Community (PrideVMC), providing an umbrella to the various sexualities, gender presentations and gender identities present in the veterinary profession.
How can we bring this diversity to our practices? Are trans teammates able to be “out”? Can we talk about mutual feelings and experiences about gender differences?
Respecting pronouns is especially important for transgender, nonbinary and gender-non-conforming people, who have had to work hard to be seen as the gender they are. We can learn the pronouns that teammates like to use. Fortunately, wonderful websites — check out the LGBTQ+ Resource Center at bit.ly/3xD0IYq — instruct us.
Practice Cultures of Diversity
The climate in veterinary practices will be richer and more satisfying when we have cultures in which everybody feels they belong.
Just as we become intentional about including everyone on the team, we also face the challenge and opportunity of addressing the needs related to the diversity of our clients. How can we reach them? How can we ensure they will feel welcome when they come to our clinics? Start with the words, and go deeper.
Diversity Toolbox guest columnist Dr. Carolyn Shadle is a trainer and consultant. Her training manual, “Communication Case Studies: Building Interpersonal Communication Skills in the Veterinary Practice,” is published by the American Animal Hospital Association. She earned a doctorate in organizational and interpersonal communication from the State University of New York at Buffalo. You can find her at veterinariancommunication.com.
DIVERSITY TERMS WORTH KNOWING
- Antiracist: A person who makes an active and conscious effort to work against multidimensional aspects of racism.
- BIPOC: Black, Indigenous and people of color.
- Cisgender: People whose gender identity matches their sex at birth.
- DEI: Diversity, equity and inclusion.
- Ethnocentrism: To apply one’s own culture or ethnicity as a frame of reference to judge other cultures.
- Gender-nonconforming (or genderqueer): A person who does not subscribe to conventional gender distinctions but identifies with neither, both, or a combination of male and female genders.
- Intersectional (or double minority): A person with a combination of marginal characteristics, such as a Black female or gay Latinx.
- Latinx: Gender-neutral neologism sometimes used to refer to people of Latin American cultural or ethnic identity in the United States.
- Microaggression: Brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or not.
- Nonbinary: Gender that doesn’t fall into the male or female categories.
- Trans: An umbrella term to describe people whose gender is not the same as, or does not sit comfortably with, the sex at birth.
- Marginal: A person or group considered to be insignificant or peripheral.
- Miscegenation: The interbreeding of people considered to be of different racial types.
- LGBTQIA: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual.