In 1970 barely 10% of veterinary school students were female, now over 80% are. And the trendline is continuing upwards. In some schools, it's 90%. In contrast, medical school is still 50% male, as is law school, and dental school is 62% male. The 50:50 crossover point for veterinary medicine occurred in the mid-1980s. My own school, the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon, was ahead of the curve as my first year class in 1986 was already about 70% women.
In 1970, a tiny number of practicing veterinarians in Canada were women, now 60% are. These women are on average 10 years younger than their male colleagues, so this number will steadily rise as the men retire and are replaced by the 80% of graduates who are female. In the span of a half century the profession has gone from being overwhelmingly male to being overwhelming female.
Why is this? Part of the answer lies in the changing nature of the work. Over the same time period as the gender shift, the profession experienced a parallel shift from rural and farm animal oriented to urban and companion animal oriented. The fact that women continue to bear the primary responsibility for childcare in many families makes the more regular and predictable hours of the latter much more accessible and attractive. Farm practice can be 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at times, with hours and hours on the road away from home. But that factor alone should have only lifted barriers and given more equal opportunity to women, not pushed them to a predominant position. Why have they shot past the 50:50 equilibrium one might otherwise predict?
It's complicated. One factor is that competition to get a spot in veterinary school is ferocious, more ferocious than for any other profession, and young women are increasingly in a better position to win that competition. Women now dominate in academics, often occupying the top rungs in the lists of the best students in any given class. The reason for this is beyond the scope of this post, but just Google the subject and you'll see that the falling academic performance of young men is the cause of much hand-wringing.
Another factor is that veterinary medicine pays less well and is perhaps less prestigious than many of the other professions. This is a terrible statement about the state of gender relations in our society, but women historically have accepted lower pay and men historically have been encouraged to seek prestige. These things are changing, but some ingrained cultural norms will take a long time to truly fade away.
And finally, veterinary medicine requires more empathy than any other profession. If you are reading this blog then you already know why this is true. Again, this is likely more a statement about our culture than anything else as I don't think I am any less empathetic than my female colleagues, but perhaps I am less concerned about those subtle cultural signals. This is not to absolutely deny the influence of biology. In a survey of very anxious dogs, 7 out of 10 preferred a female veterinarian. Something about men's deeper voices and harder features freaks them out. (I'm joking, of course. To the researcher's endless frustration the dogs were unable or unwilling to answer the questions. But the observation is generally true.)
None of this is black and white, all of this is just tendencies and trends. But look where those tendencies and trends have brought us. When I think back to when I graduated in 1990, it's astonishing how things have changed. Even though I looked like I was 12 years old, I was male and I was immediately assumed to be the doctor, whereas many of my female classmates struggled for years with reactions along the lines of, "When is the real doctor coming in?"
Veterinary medicine has changed and it is thriving like never before. I'll let you draw your own conclusions.