Think of a veterinarian and, thanks in part to James Herriot, most people conjure up images of genial man in tweed jacket (except when he has his arm down the back of a cow). Most of his time spent trundling down country lanes from farm to farm treating livestock and dealing with farmers. When Alf White, the author of the James Herriot books, was working in practice in during the 1940s and 1950s, the veterinary profession was a largely a male dominated, and most of its work involved farm animals. Things have certainly changed since then and now in many countries the profession is becoming a largely a female profession with most working on dogs, cats and other companion animals. A recent paper in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association identifies 2007 as the year in which women will out number the men in the profession in the USA. At December 2005, there were 36,383 female veterinarians in the USA (and 43,186 men) making up almost 46% of the profession. In that same year, 918 male veterinarians and just 50 female veterinarians retired. The graduating class of 2007 (2,489 total students) is split 75.3% (1873 students) and 24.7% male (616). So as 90% of veterinarians retiring are male and 75% entering the profession are female, you see how rapidly this change is talking place.

This rapid change raises a number of questions, such as ‘Will it have any effect on the profession?’ and ‘What is the reason for the change?’ One of the reasons why more women are going to veterinary school is that, in the past, schools often discriminated against female applicants. It was generally considered to be ‘an unsuitable profession for a woman’. I can remember a very lively debate in the letters page of the Veterinary Record in the 1980s, between those who thought that the influx of women would ruin the profession and those with a more progressive view. This brings me on to the second question, ‘what effect will this demographic change have on the veterinary profession?’ There are certain changes and trends that happening alongside the gender change, such as the reluctance of veterinarians to work in large animal practice in remote rural areas. Another concern noted recently in the UK was the reluctance of younger veterinarians to become partners in practice. The younger veterinarians appear to have different aspirations to their predecessors. The continued growth of corporations running practices is another trend changing the face of private practice. Whether these changes can be linked to the gender balance of the profession is not clear, as it could just be a generational change, or a change due to economic pressures.

Looking in the CAB Abstracts Database to see if there was anything on these issues, I came across a reference to a paper written to help the middle aged veterinarian running his own practice deal with these new veterinarians who arrive in practice from veterinary school with a different outlook and with different expectations. It has the intriguing title of ‘Living with the alien spawn: an old fart’s guide to associates’ by C Woloshyn. He describes the ‘old farts’ as middle aged practice owners who were expected to sacrifice themselves for their jobs, and with little responsibility for raising the family. The ‘new alien spawn’ on the other hand see that ‘jobs are not investments, but that careers are’. Woloshyn lists a number of characteristics of these new veterinarians which all lead to the conclusion that today’s veterinarian does not want to grow up to be like her boss. These attributes include: love their career, don’t want to be owners, hate unpredictable hours, woefully ignorant about finances, place a low priority on income, and places a high priority on mentoring. The message of the paper is that if the practice owner takes these considerations into account, they can get the best from their newly qualified veterinarians for the benefit of their clients.

Reference: Woloshyn, C. Living with the alien spawn: an old fart’s guide to associates. Small animal and exotics. Proceedings of the North American Veterinary Conference, Volume 19, Orlando, Florida, USA, 8-12 January, 2005, 2005, pp.1017-1018

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