At veterinary colleges, male students are in the minority

Finances and other factors could be pushing men to pursue other professions
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Men have become a minority among veterinary students, and no one knows exactly why—or how to respond.

Male enrollment in U.S. veterinary colleges decreased from 89 percent for the 1969-1970 school year to 22.4 percent for 2008-2009, according to the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.

National trends might help explain the gender shift at veterinary colleges. Female students have become the majority in many health professions, but not in fields such as engineering and computer science. Male students still have a slight majority in human medicine and dentistry, which pay better than veterinary medicine. The switch in the veterinary profession's focus from food animals to companion animals could play a role. Also, the trend toward female veterinarians might be self-perpetuating.

Many students and administrators at veterinary colleges think the profession needs men to maintain a diversity of perspectives and reflect the country's population. Some believe the profession should recruit men actively, partly in hopes of alleviating shortages in food animal practice.

Student perspectives

Aaron G. Gibbons (WSU '11), president-elect of the Student AVMA, had long wanted to be a veterinarian. In high school, he worked on dairy farms. He took another path in college, however, after he saw how much schooling he'd have to complete to become a veterinarian. For 10 years, he worked in the computer industry. Now pursuing veterinary medicine after all, he plans to go into food animal practice.
Enrollment by gender at U.S. veterinary colleges, 1970-2009

Gibbons said other men with an interest in science also might gravitate to careers that pay a higher dividend than veterinary medicine, such as engineering or human medicine. In addition, he thinks the differences between the sexes might predispose men to physical sciences and women to life sciences.

"When we were growing up as kids, we wanted to play with trucks and crash things together and blow things up," he said. "Little girls tend to want to play with dolls and show more compassion."

Gibbons sees value in having male and female students together at veterinary colleges so they can learn from one another's perspectives. He thinks veterinarians need to make the profession enticing to students of both genders. The profession could be more lucrative, he said, and practitioners can reach out to high school students to suggest veterinary medicine as a career option.

Joseph M. Esch (OSU '12), the junior delegate representing The Ohio State University in the SAVMA House of Delegates, chose veterinary medicine rather than human medicine because his love of animals outweighed financial considerations. A third-generation Collie fancier, he has worked with dogs for his entire life. He plans to pursue small animal practice.

Esch believes veterinary students choose small animal or large animal practice more on the basis of their background than of their gender. He said a number of women in his class have an interest in large animal practice, and many of them grew up on farms.

"I don't know why there would be a call or a push that we should have more men enter the field," Esch said. "The women veterinarians who are graduating are equally as talented and sometimes more talented than the men."

A bigger issue than gender balance, to Esch, is reducing the debt load for veterinary students. If student debt were lower, he said, veterinary medicine would be more appealing to men and women.

College reactions

Money also was a concern for a focus group of 20 second- and third-year male veterinary students at Western University of Health Sciences.

Jeff Keating, the university's executive director of public affairs, said Western's veterinary college arranged the focus group in 2006 to help determine why fewer men are going into veterinary medicine.

The male veterinary students in the focus group said one factor might be that human medicine provides more bang for the buck. The students expressed some concern, too, that the large number of women in the profession could be intimidating to men.

Female enrollment in U.S. professional or graduate programs in scientific fields, 2006

Keating said administrators of Western's veterinary college fear that veterinary medicine is not part of the conversation when male students look at career options.

"When men or boys are expressing an interest in sciences, veterinary medicine needs to be one of the options made available to them, as so many other options are," Keating said. "Do people perceive more of an affinity between girls and cats and dogs and horses?"

Kansas State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, which has a focus on food animals, has been reaching out to male students.

Dean Ralph C. Richardson said the veterinary college also recruits students from racial and ethnic minorities. He said, "We believe that we need to have a student body that approximates society as best possible."

The college still accepts students on the basis of merit, Dr. Richardson said. Nevertheless, because the college nearly always exhausts the entire acceptance list and alternate list to fill a class, the dean sends acceptance letters first to men and minorities on either list—particularly those who want to work with food animals.

Dr. Richardson said his sense is that male veterinary students have a greater interest in food animal practice than female veterinary students do. The physical work of food animal practice might continue to deter some women, he said.

According to AVMA data for 2009, a higher percentage of male than female veterinary graduates do go into food animal or mixed animal practice. About 23 percent of male graduates who accepted employment went into exclusively food animal, predominantly food animal, or mixed animal practice—in contrast with 10 percent of female graduates. Most veterinary graduates, male and female, pursued advanced study or companion animal practice.

National situation

Lisa M. Greenhill, AAVMC associate executive director for diversity, has seen few efforts by veterinary colleges to recruit male students beyond outreach relevant to food animal practice.

Greenhill thinks the proportion of female veterinary students might have stabilized in recent years—hovering at 77 percent to 78 percent of enrollment ever since the 2004-2005 school year.

Women now dominate many areas of undergraduate and graduate education, Greenhill noted. She said boys have fallen behind in elementary and secondary education, with fewer boys finishing high school. Educators for years had focused on helping girls succeed in school.

"What happened is we, as a culture, haven't figured out how to make sure one group gets the things they need to not be disadvantaged, while not abandoning and disadvantaging other groups," Greenhill said. "That's not equity."