The fact that women will soon dominate the field of veterinary medicine has been widely reported (see JAVMA, Feb. 15, 2010). As of 2010, the veterinary profession is about 50 percent men and 50 percent women for the first time, according to AVMA figures, while enrollment in veterinary colleges is about 80 percent women.
Yet, the cause behind this increase in the percentage of female veterinarians isn't as well known. Recently, a sociologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas endeavored to find an answer.
Anne E. Lincoln, PhD, is an assistant professor in the department of sociology at SMU and an expert on how occupations transition from being male- or female-dominated.
Her study, "The Shifting Supply of Men and Women to Occupations: Feminization in Veterinary Education," was published in the July 2010 issue of Social Forces.
Dr. Lincoln analyzed "the feminization of veterinary medicine" from a different perspective: by examining data from the pool of applicants to U.S. veterinary schools and colleges from 1975-1995. (After 1995, veterinary schools implemented varying application procedures, making comparisons unreliable.) The Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges supplied data from its annual, confidential survey of all U.S. veterinary schools and colleges for the study.
Conventional occupational research identifies a flip in the gender make-up of a profession by looking at the number of men and women who get hired into that profession, Dr. Lincoln said. Her study broke with that convention, and, instead, measured the number of men and women applying for enrollment in training programs.
She observed that male enrollment in U.S. veterinary colleges decreased from 89 percent for the 1969-1970 academic year to 22.4 percent for 2008-2009, according to the AAVMC. Around 1987, the male-to-female enrollment ratio was 1:1, which marked the last time men outnumbered or equaled the number of women enrolling in veterinary schools and colleges nationally.
The study points to three factors that appear to have driven the change: a 1972 federal amendment that outlawed discrimination against female students, some prospective male applicants deciding against applying to graduate schools because of the growing number of women enrolling, and the increasing number of women earning bachelor's degrees in numbers that far exceed those of male graduates.
"There was really only one variable where I found an effect, and that was the proportion of women already enrolled in vet med schools," Dr. Lincoln said in a university press release. "So perhaps a young male student says he's going to visit a veterinary medical school, and when he sees a classroom with a lot of women he changes his choice of graduate school. That's what the findings indicate."
The study puts to rest the long-held notion that men are more concerned than women about the cost of tuition and salaries when choosing a professional field, according to Dr. Lincoln.
"There's always been this notion for any field that feminizes that women don't care about salaries because they have a husband's earnings to fall back on," Dr. Lincoln said in the release. "But this study found that men and women are equally affected by tuition and salaries, and that what's really driving feminization of the field is what I call 'preemptive flight'—men not applying because of women's increasing enrollment. Also, fewer men than women are graduating with a bachelor's degree, so they aren't applying because they don't have the prerequisites."
Dr. Marguerite Pappaioanou, AAVMC executive director, said men choosing not to go to college is a problem for higher education in general. However, she does agree that "it would be intimidating for a young man to see a class with 90 percent women."
What's affected veterinary education and the "STEM" disciplines—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—in particular is fewer students showing an interest in math and science, she believes.
In general, Dr. Pappaioanou said the study was a positive step in analyzing veterinary education, which is seriously needed.
"We need research so we can make evidence-based decisions" in the area of veterinary admissions, she said.
To view the study, visit www.smuresearch.com.