Where are the men?
Veterinary medicine is slowly becoming a female-dominated profession. The reasons are many. Having more role models and promoting the value of a college education are ways to draw males back in.
Every so often I field a call from a veterinarian inquiring about the declining numbers of men in the veterinary profession. These callers are mostly genuinely interested in the factors that have led to just under 20% of DVM students identifying as men. Occasionally, such calls devolve into suggestions that diversity programs have disadvantaged young men who have an interest in the profession. Not long ago, I responded to an email with facts and figures suggesting that the persistent decline of men in veterinary medicine is due to factors other than any perceived superadvantage that women might have in the profession.
Prior to the 1972 passage of Title IX, which federally prohibited sex discrimination, women made up 16% of DVM students in the United States. Within three years of the anti-discrimination law’s passage, enrollment of women more than tripled, revealing just how stifling sex-based discrimination in the profession had been for women. Women made up half of DVM students in less than 15 years and 75% within 30 years.
These are output figures. The story of men in veterinary medicine starts well before veterinary school.
The Leaky Pipeline
Research suggests the disparity in educational pursuits begins before children start primary school. Boys have fewer books read to them as toddlers and they are generally slower to read than girls. Girls continue to outpace boys in reading through middle school, while boys tend to develop stronger math skills. Throughout these academic developments, boys are more likely to receive messaging that discounts the benefits of college. By high school, boys find it harder to rationalize the various costs of a college degree as an investment in their professional and economic futures.
Such early and persistent messaging has a serious effect on the willingness to pursue a college education beyond high school. Although men graduate high school at a slightly higher rate than women, they do not continue to college at the same rate. According to a 2015 U.S. Census Bureau report, only 40% of men above age 18 had any education beyond high school.
Studies suggest that young men feel they have a wider array of career options outside of the college pathway. Short-term vocational training programs and the rise of technological certifications provide numerous well-paying career opportunities. While these pathways are important to the overall economic engine, such alternatives reinforce messaging that a traditional college education is not necessarily worth the investment for young men.
How Many Men Are in the Pool?
The same census report noted that 19 million Americans were enrolled in undergraduate or graduate education programs in 2015. Whittling the numbers down to the age range of most prospective veterinary students, 18 to 29 years old, the overall number of men in an undergraduate or graduate program is about 7 million, or 46.4% of all college students. Data on educational attainment in 2018 for roughly the same age cohort suggests that 40% of male college students will not complete their undergraduate degree programs, leaving 4.3 million young men having earned their bachelor’s degree by age 29.
The reality is that veterinary medicine faces tough competition in recruiting men. First, boys and young men in many communities do not see college-educated men acting as on-the-ground, in-person role models. This lack of role models, a phenomenon we tend to see across underrepresented groups, serves to silently reinforce anti-education messaging that boys receive throughout childhood. Suggestions that men are dissuaded from the profession due to the increasing debt-to-income ratio and concerns about the status of the profession in society might be true for the population above, but many boys and men in the pipeline are lost to the profession long before these issues become decision drivers.
Second, the time necessary to prepare to apply to veterinary school might serve to dissuade young men. Data from the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges show that young men develop an interest in veterinary medicine later than young women by as many as three years. Many colleges of veterinary medicine require contact and shadowing hours with a veterinarian in order to apply, and in 2018, applicants reported an average of more than 1,600 such hours. Applicants generally begin accumulating these hours early in their academic careers.
With the delayed interest expression among young men, evidence exists that male students believe they have less time to accumulate the hours and stay on the traditional four- to six-year completion schedule for an undergraduate degree. This potentially makes it easier for them to be recruited into other professional pipelines without such application requirements.
Third, men seeking college degrees are heavily, and often successfully, recruited into male-dominated professional tracks such as agriculture, biological and physical sciences, business and management, computer science, government, information technology, and all forms of engineering. Even reviewing 2018 data from the Association of American Medical Colleges, men still represent a modest majority of applicants and matriculants to and in human medicine. All these fields remain male-dominated and offer greater compensation than what is typically found within the veterinary profession.
What’s also important to note is that many of these other professions leverage strong recruiting efforts to ensure they are successful in recruiting these young men. On behalf of our member institutions, the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges maintains a presence at several major recruiting events every year. The exhibit halls are typically packed with graduate and professional program representatives and organizations looking to provide educational and employment opportunities to student attendees.
Often organizations have successfully sought to provide exposure opportunities to primary and secondary school students, making these undergraduate recruitment engagements a part of a larger strategy in pipeline development.
Typically, fewer than 10 of the 30 U.S. veterinary schools will join the AAVMC in recruiting undergraduate students; our presence is small. The effort is meaningful and impactful for those schools, but in terms of our collective ability to reach undergraduate students broadly and male students specifically, we are limited and potentially quite late to the game of pipeline development. The persistent decline of men entering the profession bears this out.
So, What Do We Do?
Increasing the number of men pursuing careers in veterinary medicine requires a multilevel approach. At the individual level, veterinary professionals, especially male professionals, must step up efforts to be visible and engaged with young men of all backgrounds in their communities. In the same ways we understand the need for multiracial professionals to be role models for children of color, there is a need for role models and messaging that school is good, continuing to college is better, and persisting on to veterinary school and a career in veterinary medicine is great.
There must be a fundamental understanding that our recruitment messaging has to meet students where they are. Talking about being a veterinarian is one thing, but building student capacity to want to complete high school, go on to college and one day be eligible to apply to veterinary school is another.
At the organizational level, we must commit to understanding and meeting the need for long-term pipeline-development strategies across the profession. We have to be visible organizationally and institutionally at every step throughout the K-16 educational system so that students can see themselves and their potential in the veterinary profession. Some of this work involves us reducing barriers to success for prospective students. It does our collective work and investment a great disservice to build student interest only to maintain barriers to their progress.
The reasons men aren’t entering the profession are numerous, but they largely center on social and educational factors that have little to do with veterinary medicine. The profession will be best served in achieving all our recruiting goals by promoting education broadly as a positive pursuit and by showing up consistently locally and nationally as a viable, accessible and attainable career option for all prospective students.
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 http://bit.ly/2APLtk4.