How gender influences veterinarian-client relationships

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Society has fairly well embraced the concept that men are from Mars and women from Venus as a way of explaining male and female peculiarities. But how aware of these differences, namely the areas of communication and relationships, should veterinarians be, and do they need to tailor their discussions with clients to compensate for gender?


During the Nuggets section of the AAHA annual meeting, Maureen Fredrickson, former vice president of the Delta Society who now runs her own consulting company, offered her insights into the complex he-she phenomenon with her lecture "Gender effects on pet ownership and response to animal care."

Male veterinarians, Fredrickson said, run the risk of being perceived as uncaring by female clients who interpret fact-laden clinical diagnoses as insensitive to the relationships they share with their pets. At the other end, female practitioners may find their male clients balking at difficult decisions about treatment, because men tend to avoid emotion-laden discussions.

Fredrickson, who holds a master's degree in social work, explained that gender differences in communication are biologic, sociologic, and cultural in origin. These factors, in turn, affect how a man or woman forms relationships, including those with animals.

Studies have shown that girls generally develop language skills faster than boys, becoming more adept in communication at early age. In family and social settings, girls are encouraged to express their emotions, but the tendency is to discourage such skills in boys. As girls mature, they usually form small, intimate "herds" whose members relate to one another in terms of consensus. In groups of boys, it's "all about the individual."

For males, attachment is expressed by activity and production, according to Fredrickson. Young boys prefer to care for animals by building cages, driving tractors to move manure piles, and getting involved in other activities that don't always include feeding, grooming, and petting the animal. There is little tendency for young boys to display little overt feelings of affection for an animal. Females may perceive that behavior, however, as the boy having no relationship with the animal.


But with females "it's all about relating and talking about relationships." They become attached to an animal because they develop a relationship with it.

Veterinarians should keep these nuances in mind when dealing with clients of the opposite sex. Fredrickson advised against removing a pet from the presence of a female client for treatment. "Females are more likely to interpret this as sneaky, as not telling them what's going on, and hiding things from them."

Women are also better at reading body language than men are, Fredrickson said, so when the diagnosis is grim, women will probably know without the veterinarian saying so. Honesty, tempered with sensitivity, is essential. Fredrickson is developing programs that will help males better decode and understand body language.

On the other hand, males usually "avoid emotional confrontation like the plague" and don't like to be as up front about difficult issues.

As a way of facilitating these interactions, Fredrickson suggested having a veterinary technician or staff member of the same sex as the client in the examination room during an office call. Their presence can foster a sense of understanding and connectedness, strengthening the veterinarian-client relationship, and which, in practical terms, helps the practice's bottom line.