Women taking the lead

Speakers discuss barriers, solutions at WVLDI sessions
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Last year’s AVMA Annual Convention proved notable in the long-term advancement of women in veterinary leadership positions, and this year looks to be meaningful as well.

At the 2013 AVMA convention, Dr. Karen Bradley stood for re-election for the AVMA House Advisory Committee. She was among five veterinarians who ran for three slots, and not only was she not re-elected—a rarity—but also, all the open seats on the HAC were filled by men. In addition, Dr. Stacy L. Pritt had run for AVMA vice president the previous year but was defeated by Dr. Walter Threlfall.

Drs. Bradley and Pritt decided immediately following the convention in 2013 to turn their defeats into an opportunity when they formed the Women’s Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative, which is meant to spur more women into participating at higher levels of the profession.

Drs. Pritt and Bradley
Drs. Stacy L. Pritt (left) and Karen Bradley, co-founders of the Women’s Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative, encourage their female colleagues to run for volunteer leadership positions.

There’s already been some progress with the election of Dr. Rebecca Stinson as the 2014-2016 AVMA vice president during the AVMA House of Delegates regular annual session.

To encourage more women to pursue practice ownership or other positions of leadership, the WVLDI planned a number of events for this year’s convention. On July 25, Dr. Donald Smith, former dean of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, and Julie Kumble, acting CEO of the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, hosted a Women’s Leadership Development Workshop and Interactive Laboratory, which was co-sponsored by the AVMA and Ceva Animal Health. Participants discussed where they perceived the women’s leadership gap to be and what could be done about it.

“Research shows that when about 30 percent of a group is made up of women, the discourse, values, profitability, and working style of the entire organization change,” Dr. Smith said. This is true for political groups, corporate boards, and other groups.

In four sectors of veterinary medicine—academia, private practice, organized veterinary medicine, and industry—things are still coming up short, Dr. Smith said.

That said, change is happening. In the AVMA House of Delegates, for example, 31 percent of the HOD is made up of women—reaching that critical tipping point—yet only two of the 15 voting members on the AVMA Board of Directors are women.

In veterinary academia, only six of 30 U.S. veterinary colleges have female deans. And only 25 percent of tenured professors are women, according to the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.

Both Dr. Smith and Kumble acknowledge the reasons behind the female leadership gap are multifactorial and break them down into four categories: systemic, cultural, economic, and psychological.

Systemic barriers are those where women aren’t as likely as men to have chances to advance. For example, more women are associates, and associate veterinarians typically have less autonomy than practice owners to participate in organized veterinary medicine.

Cultural barriers can be stereotypes, such as women being known for taking care of others first. Women exhibit traits of being more nurturing and collaborative compared with men, who tend to be more self-promoting and assertive.

“It’s great when men get female traits, but there’s pushback when women take on male traits. So we get pushback from the outside or even from within ourselves,” Kumble said.

Economically, barriers still exist, with women making less than men, whether because they’re less willing to negotiate, they are more likely to take time off, or their work is undervalued.

And finally, psychological barriers manifest when women tend not to promote themselves and are stymied by the “perfection complex,” which makes them think they need to be the perfect candidate for a position before they apply or that they should wait for the perfect alignment of circumstances rather than take a risk.

Dr. Lindsay F. Mathre (Colorado State ’08) is an associate veterinarian at Greenbelt Veterinary Hospital in Midland, Texas, who attended the WVLDI workshop because she would like to further her opportunities with leadership. She added that she thinks women generally sell themselves short.

“Women don’t ask,” Dr. Mathre said. “We feel like we need to be recognized instead of rightfully asking for what is ours.”

She said the workshop was valuable because it allowed her to hear what other women are experiencing in their careers and what they are doing about the common setbacks they face.

So what can be done about these barriers? Dr. Smith and Kumble spent the last two hours of their four-hour session coaching the 30 attendees on how to improve their negotiation skills and about the importance of mentorship.

“Mentoring is one of the most critical aspects to professional growth,” Dr. Smith said.

Related JAVMA content:

Conquering barriers (Oct. 1, 2013)

Women’s leadership group goes to school (July 1, 2014)

Motherhood and veterinary medicine (April 1, 2013)