Speaker: Men must be deliberate about promoting gender equality

Published on September 12, 2018
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Dr. Aspros
The future of organized veterinary medicine depends on preparing the current generation of female veterinarians to be leaders, said Dr. Douglas G. Aspros, a former AVMA president and founding member of the Women's Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative.

Dr. Douglas G. Aspros takes the lack of female leadership in veterinary medicine personally.

Raised by a mother who worked most of her life as a teletype machine operator, educated at progressive New York institutions where male and female students were treated equally, and inspired by a female member of a Nobel Prize–winning research team, Dr. Aspros spent his early years unaware of gender bias.

Then, in 1971, he enrolled at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, and the blinders fell off.

"The idea that women didn't belong in the STEM professions never occurred to me," recalled Dr. Aspros, referring to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. "Then I go to Cornell veterinary college. Women there were more likely to be secretaries than a faculty member or student." The former AVMA president and founding member of the Women's Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative explained during a July 14 session at AVMA Convention 2018 why men must be deliberate about promoting gender equality.

Women have made up more than 50 percent of veterinary classes since 1986. They currently comprise 60 percent of the veterinary profession and 80 percent of veterinary students, according to Dr. Aspros. Yet the people at the highest levels of veterinary leadership are predominantly male.

"If you're a man and you're a leader, you're responsible for the success of your organization, whatever that is. You can't make it successful if you're not promoting women to executive positions where strategic decisions are made," he said. "You're losing a lot of talent, ingenuity, and energy."

Women in leadership face a number of stereotypes: They're bossy, aggressive, or intimidating. Such views are unfair, explained Dr. Aspros, as leaders are expected to be aggressive, strong, and decisive. "Women like that are seen as arrogant and abrasive," he noted.

Dr. Aspros advised men to educate themselves about gender discrimination and commit to being part of the solution toward ending it. The process of eliminating discrimination is not the goal, he added. "If you really want to solve the problem, you have to solve the problem," Dr. Aspros said. "If there aren't women in leadership in your organization, do something about it."

Men should treat women as colleagues by not tolerating sexist behavior or "mansplaining," which is when a man talks condescendingly to someone (especially a woman) about something he has incomplete knowledge of, with the mistaken assumption that he knows more about it than the person he's talking to does. They can mentor women but not in a "creepy way," said Dr. Aspros, referencing the alleged sexual abuses of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and comedian Louis C.K., among others.

"If we're going to build a strong profession, strong practices, and a strong industry," he said, "we need to prepare, accept, and promote women into leadership roles so we have the strongest organizations to carry us forward."

Related JAVMA content:

Women leaders continue to build their ranks (June 15, 2017)

AVMA collaborating with women’s initiative (Jan. 15, 2014)

Conquering Barriers (Oct. 1, 2013)