Conquering Barriers

The profession takes a new look at why more women don’t hold leadership positions and what can ­– and should –be done about it.
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The profession needs a concerted effort to elect qualified women and black veterinarians to leadership positions at the local and state levels, where they could gain the experience needed to become leaders in the AVMA.

That was the message delivered by AVMA President-elect Harry J. Magrane, nearly 40 years ago.

“Certainly, to develop a profession that is representative of our whole society, we must quit dragging our feet and cut the barriers that make sect or color distinctions a factor in qualifications for organizational work,” he said at the AVMA Annual Meeting in 1975.

Today, looking at the top positions in the profession—from dean’s offices to association boardrooms to industry corner suites—the situation hasn’t improved much beyond what Dr. Magrane observed back then.

“Too many people assume we’re graduating more women, and associations have more female members, so that, naturally, the upper echelons will have more women. That has not proved true,” said Dr. Karen Bradley (GA ’96), former chair of the AVMA House Advisory Committee and Vermont representative to the AVMA House of Delegates.

“My fundamental thing is it’s not a people problem. Everyone blames the victim—the women who aren’t in these roles because they’re too concerned with other things—rather than saying it’s a systems problem. Women have the talent and desire. It’s the systems that don’t allow people to get there.”

Fed up with the slow progress, Dr. Bradley and other veterinary leaders have started an initiative meant to promote dialogue on this topic and recruit more women into leadership positions.

Stumbling blocks

Dr. Stacy L. Pritt (WSU ’97) has experienced firsthand the barriers that keep women from attaining leadership positions.

She is the delegate for the American Society of Laboratory Animal Practi­tioners to the HOD and director of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee Office at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

Dr. Pritt ran for AVMA vice president in 2012 but lost to former veterinary faculty member Dr. Walter R. Threlfall (OSU ’68) of The Ohio State University.

Throughout her candidacy, she was asked whether she had time to serve or if her family was all right with her running for the position—a subtle way, she thinks, of people inquiring whether she had children.

“That struck me in a couple different ways. If we have a leadership position and people are looking at it as ‘Does a person have time to serve?’ then that’s going to automatically mean a lot of people can’t serve in the position, even if they’re qualified or the best person to serve.

“I’m not running for president of the United States here, I thought. I wasn’t being asked what I could bring to the position or wasn’t being asked why I felt like I was the best candidate. I was being asked why I had time. ... I was surprised I got so many of those questions,” Dr. Pritt said.

Many organizations, not just the AVMA, have explicit or implicit processes for ascending within the ranks. Often, this is accomplished not through achievements or contributions but simply by time put in.

“That’s not, in my opinion, the best way to include everyone,” Dr. Pritt said.

She credits ASLAP for bucking that tradition. The nearly 700-member allied organization has had a majority of women on its board for years. Dr. Pritt, who has served on a number of ASLAP task forces and committees, says there are a few reasons.

“We as an organization don’t have a ‘wait your turn’ attitude toward leadership and service,” she said. Fur­thermore, ASLAP does not have any constituent groups nominating individuals for its various offices. Instead, potential leaders themselves indicate their interest, and the nominations committee actively encourages people to run for office.

All ASLAP positions are filled by a vote of the entire membership. She said this better allows candidates to be judged on their achievements and contributions.

What keeps them maintaining and pursuing these positions, Dr. Pritt said, is that ASLAP holds its two annual face-to-face board meetings in conjunction with major conferences. Everything else is handled by email or phone.

“That way, just about anybody can participate,” she said.

Fitting into a mold

“We live in a society where male leadership models are preferred. There are working assumptions based on them. With that, society has expectations of women as caretakers and homemakers,” said Lisa Greenhill, associate executive director for institutional research and diversity at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.

And in these models, how people—particularly women—ascend to leadership roles in an organization matters, she said.

“While there are formal mechanisms for power, if you skip those and ascend, will people respect you? Did you ‘earn’ it? It does matter in some environments. Does it matter in veterinary medicine? I think that there are certainly individuals who say it does matter, and advancement through councils in organized veterinary medicine has been stymied because [someone] didn’t do x first. I do think it matters, particularly if you’re different,” she said.

These rigid formal and informal expectations, Greenhill argues, are advantageous for individuals who meet the current leadership paradigm. That is, individuals who are further along in their careers and have achieved some measure of financial independence, which allows them to step away and serve in a leadership position, unburdened by personal responsibilities they had 20 or 40 years earlier.

So, it’s no coincidence the women who have succeeded in these male-dominated leadership paradigms fit this bill: AVMA presidents—Drs. Mary Beth Leininger (PUR ’67) from 1996-1997, Bonnie V. Beaver (MIN ’68) from 2004-2005, and René A. Carlson (MIN ’78) from 2011-2012; vice presidents—Drs. Bobbye A. Chancellor (AUB ’51) from 1977-1979 and Jan K. Strother (TUS ’86) from 2010-2012; and Dr. Barbara A. Schmidt (PUR ’84), the first female member of the House Advisory Committee from 2007-2011, HAC chair from 2009-2010, and current AVMA treasurer.

Greenhill says she takes nothing away from their achievements, but if those are the only kinds of women who are valued as leaders, “then those will be the only women we see, and I don’t know how many of them there are. I don’t know if we’ll reach a critical mass.”

The expectation that people will put their time in, and wait, turns away not only talented and capable women, Dr. Bradley argues, but also talented and capable young men. She points to the HOD, where a healthy majority of members are older than 50.

Dr. Bradley doesn’t exactly fit the leadership mold: she has two children, ages 5 and 8, and is 43, putting her solidly in Generation X. She understands why there aren’t a lot of people like her in leadership positions. Part of that, she thinks, has to do with the fact that people of her generation value their personal time and tend not to commit to something when they feel they can’t effect change or derive meaning.

When a board or group is mostly composed of one generation, particularly those who may be older and set in their ways, it discourages debate and discussion, she said.

Business case

On the most basic level, organizations with leadership structures that are not conducive to women with children lose a lot of talented people. There are also less obvious effects.

Dr. Karen Bradley speaks at an AVMA Executive Board meeting during her term as AVMA House Advisory Committee chair. She recently co-founded the Women’s Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative to spur more women into higher levels of the profession. (Photo by R. Scott Nolen)

“What I see in organized veterinary medicine is if there’s a better diversity of boards, councils, committees, and other entities, then there’s more trust. When you look at the Executive Board and no one looks like you—not your gender or generation—they might not know what you’re going through, so it’s harder to trust their decisions,” Dr. Bradley said.

“It’s hard to know you’re truly being represented at that level. But if someone in your circumstances is there, you feel like you’re opinion is being represented.”

She’s quick to note that the problem exists not just in veterinary associations.

According to AAVMC statistics, women made up 78.6 percent of enrolled U.S. veterinary students in 2013. While women accounted for 41 percent of faculty members at these institutions, slightly more than half of them were nontenure-track, and women held just 0.7 percent of the administrative positions.

Looking at corporations, which are gaining influence in the profession as more private practices are sold to companies, it’s clear the gender gap persists there, too. VCA Antech, the parent company of VCA Animal Hospitals, for example, has no female executives, only four males.

“The employees are women, be they veterinarians or technicians, but few women are at the corporate board table,” Dr. Bradley said.

In fact, only 3.3 percent of U.S. corporate boards have women as their chairs, and only 16.6 percent of board seats are occupied by women. In the veterinary profession, it’s not much better. Currently, two of 12 Hill’s executives, one of eight Zoetis board members, and one of 11 executive officers at Elanco are women, according to the companies’ websites.

Value systems

What’s the solution?

“First, we have these shining stars, these women we all know about, and while they’re phenomenal individuals, we can name them on our hands and toes,” Greenhill said. “That element has to be abandoned. There has to be a commitment to cultivate leaders among women and other underrepresented groups.”

Second, she said, is that until people think more broadly about what they value in leadership experience and characteristics, it will be difficult to achieve a deepening involvement of women and others underrepresented in veterinary medical leadership.

To address that issue, Greenhill said organizations must tackle the problem of unconscious bias, or the “mini me” phenomenon. Individuals tend to unconsciously view competency through the lens of their own experience, assuming that because they are competent, other who are like them will be competent also. Leaders who are unaware of or don’t account for this unconscious bias tend to select others like themselves for advancement, and so the cycle continues. Individuals who are different from the current leaders may find it difficult to ascend in such a climate, and if they do succeed, may face challenges in fostering or cultivating change.

Lastly, Greenhill said, “Folks with privilege are largely unaware that folks without privilege are still experiencing many firsts. If white guys have always held positions one through 10 (in an organization), and someone who isn’t a white guy ascends to position nine, it’s a big deal. The other nine guys may acknowledge it’s different or ‘Wow, this is the first time it happened,’ but it’s not as meaningful for them.

“There’s no glass ceiling they broke. I’m not suggesting the other nine people don’t believe in fairness and inclusiveness, but I do suggest there’s potentially a blind spot for appreciating what the new person is experiencing and what their task is.”

Dr. Beth Sabin, AVMA associate director for international and diversity initiatives, says these changes are necessary for any organization, including the AVMA, to stay relevant, and they need to take place sooner than later.

“My fear is benign neglect is not always a good thing,” she said. “Until we embrace the new concepts of what leadership is, it will be hard to change. You can wait for it to happen by attrition, but you will be irrelevant by then. We need to be proactive about what we want leadership to look like. If you just wait, then people who would want to be involved will go elsewhere.”

A new model

In some places in the profession, the leadership landscape has already changed.

The American Animal Hospital Association board of directors currently has nine women and five men, and 11 of the 14 are younger than 50 years. In addition, the current vice president, president-elect, and president are female.

“This reflects the profession as a whole, and that’s really important to us. We are a compentency-based board. If we had a man and woman applying for the same position, we would choose the person who met our organization’s needs, regardless of gender. There are so many competent women leaders out there who just need an opportunity, that we have no gender selection issues. We find women are stepping forward right and left,” said Dr. Mark Russak (COL ’76), immediate past president of AAHA.

He added, “People who tell us that you can’t find competent young women to be leaders don’t know what they’re talking about, not if you go looking in the right places.”

Still, after reading the book “Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations,” AAHA leaders were inspired to streamline the association, improving it for members and making it easier for board members to participate.

The association is now undergoing that transition after a campaign to educate its more than 50,000 members about the changes. Dr. Russak chaired the task force that led the initiative. Part of the task force members’ work involved creating a document that explained the proposed changes along with the pros and cons, which he said helped mitigate resistance.

Major changes under way involve reducing the AAHA board from 14 to eight members; eliminating its executive committee, which made recommendations to the board; and consolidating into one body its two selection committees, one made up of past presidents who selected the incoming vice president and one that selected at-large board members.

Some individuals hope that proposed changes to the AVMA governance structure may similarly help bridge the gender gap in the Association’s leadership positions (see JAVMA, July 15, 2013).

The Governance Engagement Team, which Dr. Bradley chairs, recently solicited feedback from AVMA members on several key concepts outlined in the report, and is expected to present a report to the AVMA Executive Board during its November meeting.

Independently, Drs. Pritt and Bradley have created the Women’s Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative.

They hope to empower women veterinarians, so that more will be appointed or elected to leadership positions at all levels of organized veterinary medicine.

Dr. Bradley said she helped start the group in late July because there was not enough time for in-person meetings among women who are leaders and those who want to connect.

“It gives a professional forum for these discussions and allows people to determine for themselves their level of participation. There are some AVMA leaders involved and former deans. This is giving people access to leaders they may never have had [access to] before,” Dr. Pritt said.

As of early September, the WVLDI had 144 members on LinkedIn and 366 on Facebook.

Drs. Pritt and Bradley are working on making the initiative a formal nonprofit organization. They also hope to set up sponsorship and mentoring programs as well as lectures.

“The initiative, I’m really hoping, will have a life of its own and be lasting,” Dr. Bradley said. “And I think it needs to happen for the profession in general.”