The Culture of [Veterinary] Medicine

I was listening to the As a Woman podcast while driving to work. Dr. Crawford was talking about how your workplace cannot support you if you don’t ask for or tell them what you need.

She was talking about the context of discrimination against women who are trying to be a mom. Whether it’s time off because you’re going through a miscarriage, or not getting the promotion because you’re a mom and suffer the “mom tax”.


Meanwhile, my workplace is quite supportive, but I had no idea when I would need time off for all these fertility diagnostics and treatments, that itself creates a lot of anxiety for me. In all honesty, I was trying to get pregnant right when I started my current position. While they cannot legally ask you if you are going to have children in the next little bit, I felt guilty not being transparent about my goals. I spoke about it with the regional director, and then turned out that my hospital manager was pregnant. So, I eventually was open about trying to conceive with most of my working crew, the women anyway. At the time, I didn't know that we would struggle to get pregnant, and so given that information I don't want to count the proverbial chickens before they hatch.


So what is this Culture in Veterinary Medicine? Remember the post I did a while back on the Women of the Round Table? Well, I attended the following year, when I was in my fourth and final year of vet school. The question came up about how to balance building a career with building a family - again - as I am sure it always does. Women going through veterinary medicine in the 70's and 80's in Canada struggled a LOT more than those of us going through it now. What I mean by this is, the boy's club mentality. You all know what I mean.


Ok, maybe you don't. But think about the show 'Mad Men' - a workplace where the executives or high-ranking individuals in the office are all men, and the women hold the servant role of secretary or housewife. If you take a look at medical doctors, up until recently, men out number women in the graduating classes in medicine, while women out number men as nurses, a role that does not hold as much power. Things for women in Canada in veterinary medicine were slightly ahead of their human medical counterparts. I say the 1970's because this is when women were trickling into veterinary colleges in the U.S., demonstrating approximately 11% of the graduating classes in 1970. A far stretch from 50:50; this occurred in the U.S. in 2009! That's a little over a decade ago. Statistics published in 2007 by the American College of Veterinary Medicine (AVMA) demonstrated that in veterinary medicine, women's average income in the U.S. was approximately $79k while their male counterparts were earning $109k. (See the history of women in veterinary medicine for more.)


So again, what is this culture? The Culture of Medicine, and Veterinary Medicine, is to show up, no matter what. You have to earn your place in this male-dominated space. If you're sick, if you're 8 and 1/2 months pregnant, if your child is ill and you are without daycare, you feel guilty. Either way, you are going to have to make a choice! It's not good! So who is going to advocate for you? We do not feel like we are given a choice. If we are sick, we come to work. We are told we have to make up the time if we go off for a personal reason. We also feel like we are going to be judged for trying to get pregnant.


Guess what? Men are not the problem. Women judge other women. It is so true! The women who graduated from veterinary medicine in the 1980's from my college who were seated at the Round Table during this year were part of the problem. I didn't take time off for my pregnancies. I didn't take time off to raise the child, they just came on calls with me. I sucked it up, so you should too! I was taken aback with these attitudes. Do not presume that you have no choices. Dr. Crawford says, we must change this culture when we get to the top! If you are a women in power, the head of your department, you need to help others out.


Everyone has a different set of priorities in their life. As veterinarians, we commonly believe that we can have it all. We can have our career, and become a mom, however, there will always be sacrifices. You are the one who needs to prioritize what you feel is important. Plan ahead. When is the school play? I want to be able to go and watch, let's book that time off work now. If your child's birthday, or Christmas is really important for your family, then advocate for yourself, prioritize these, ask for the time off. If you do this in advance, it's much easier to plan that time off around these events, whether you have to make up the time or not.


Women in veterinary medicine. If you are a large animal practitioner, and you want to get pregnant, you need to be realistic about what your body will be able to do. Not every female veterinarian is going to be able to safely go out to preg check the cattle in 40 below while 8.5 months pregnant. Yes, there have been women who have done this! Also note that, in some countries, there are high risk infectious agents, for example Brucellosis in developing or undeveloped nations, increasing your risk of abortion. Or if you are a small animal practitioner, what's your risk of Toxoplasmosis? Then, we could even start discussing the influence that the mother's stress levels have on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, called epigenetics - how the fetus' environment (the placenta, in utero environment) influences the fetus' gene expression - which I find super interesting, so maybe there will be an entire blog post about it.


I could go on and on. One of the main factors when looking for a job is will you have a decent work-life balance. Arguably, I had a much better work-life balance at my previous job. I got to the point where almost all of my medical records were completed during the work day, and then I wouldn't have to take work home with me. In my current workplace, from the pressures of the manager, she didn't want me typing in the exam room, taking away from the face-to-face conversations with the client. So, I would write it all down, history, physical exam findings, etc - and darn, I write a lot slower than I can type! But, then, after writing the notes down on paper, I then had to go and transpose allll this writing into the electronic medical record! It was extremely inefficient. I started to voice my concerns, and my colleague, now medical director said that she always types in her appointments. Ahhhh... Ok, it gave me permission to do so. But for months I was torturing myself with this!


Once you have a workplace that puts value on having a balance between working and life, you will feel more comfortable with asking for time off when necessary. My manager sat down with us during a doctor's meeting and she said, No working on Sundays! Don't check your email. Don't be doing your medical records. Take one day in the week to do things for yourself, or with your family. I can't say that I have taken this 100% to heart, but I definitely coached myself to say, is it really that important to log into the work computer at this moment. The answer is always no.


Listen to the podcast As a Woman for more great information!


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