Gender gap dogs nation's vet schools

Divide: Nearly 75 percent of students are women, leading some to predict far-reaching changes in the profession.

December 31, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- As a child growing up outside Baltimore, Annie Harvilicz knew all along what she wanted to be when she grew up: a veterinarian.

She wasn't the only young girl with that aspiration, it turns out. To Harvilicz's dismay, the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, where she is a second-year student, has about three times as many women as men enrolled.

"When I got to vet school, everyone was just like me -- young women who really like animals and study a lot," said Harvilicz, 24, who lived in Edgewood before moving to Bethesda. "I would feel more unique if there were more guys."

Harvilicz's concern about the homogeneity of veterinary students is shared around the country. The nation's 27 veterinary schools are now nearly 75 percent female -- a marked change from just 15 years ago, when schools were split evenly between the sexes.

Although the numbers of women are also rising in medical, dentistry and pharmacy schools, those programs remain more balanced than veterinary schools. The gender divide in vet schools has grown so wide that some worry the imbalance could have unwanted consequences for the profession.

Among their concerns:

Female veterinary students are more likely than their male counterparts to focus on small-animal medicine. Although that is where most of the demand is for veterinary services now, some school administrators worry that schools are not producing enough graduates who specialize in so-called "food-animal" medicine.

The growing number of female graduates might be contributing to salary stagnation in the veterinary profession, where starting salaries for vets in private practice have remained stuck around $40,000 for several years. A 1999 report found that female veterinarians charge less for their services, on average, than men do.

Salary concerns, in turn, have led the profession to limit the number of slots at veterinary schools, to increase the demand for existing veterinarians. That has made vet school admission as competitive as that of many medical schools.

The increase in female veterinarians might imperil the small, private veterinary practice because female vets express less interest than men in owning their own clinic, according to the 1999 study. School administrators and students say that is because some women worry that the responsibility of owning a clinic will conflict with family obligations.

"Women veterinarians by and large are less economically driven than their male counterparts, since they may not be the primary breadwinners in their family," said Peter Eyre, dean of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, on the Virginia Tech campus. "The fact that there are more women in the profession has changed the work picture significantly."

Signs of changes

The new face of the profession is on clear display at the school in Blacksburg in southwestern Virginia, which opened in 1980 as a cooperative venture between Virginia and Maryland. The public school, which has branches in College Park and Leesburg, Va., annually accepts 30 students from Maryland and 50 from Virginia, along with 10 from other states, for the four-year program.

This year's entering class was 78 percent female, the highest proportion ever. The signs are everywhere -- in the colorful displays of animal photos that female students build at their classroom desks, in the notice on the bulletin board advertising "embroidery available for your lab coats -- animals, letters, flowers, etc." The school recently reconfigured its bathrooms to accommodate its many women.

It's a big change for the old-guard leadership of the school, which remains mostly male. Eyre, the longest-serving veterinary school dean in North America, recalls attending school in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the 1950s, where there were only four women in his class of 60.

"The students were all farm boys, but that's not true today," he said.

Theories behind gender gap

There's no consensus about the reasons for the gender gap in vet schools. Some believe that men have shied away from veterinary medicine because it doesn't pay as well as other health care fields. Although some specialists earn well over $100,000 a year, the median pay is in the $65,000 range.

"We work just as hard in vet school as people in med school, but you can't make much money in the profession," said fourth-year student Susan Johns, from California.

Others believe the gender gap is another consequence of the newfound prominence of the American household pet. There are an estimated 60 million dogs and 65 million cats in America, and owners are increasingly willing to spend heavily to keep them healthy.

"These animals are living the life of Riley -- the dogs have gone from the barnyard and herding sheep to the bedroom, and cats are sleeping on silk cushions," Eyre said.

Society's growing appreciation for human-animal bonds has made the veterinary profession a natural fit for young women with an interest in medicine, Eyre added.

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