Female vets routinely face "outright discrimination" and sexism from their colleagues and clients, with few of them encouraged to rise up the hierarchy, indicates a small qualitative and observational study, published online in Vet Record.
This not only has implications for the sustainability of the profession, because three out of four vet school graduates are women and rates of practitioner burnout are high. But it also raises questions about the legality and ethics of practice, say the authors.
They didn't set out to focus on gender, they write, "but as the study progressed, gender became an issue of such importance that it could not be ignored."
They drew on semi structured interviews with 75 vets: 39 men and 36 women, ranging in age from 25 to 63. They included practitioners with varying levels of experience and in all three main types of practice: small animal (30); large animal (34); and equine (12).
The interviews were accompanied by observations during practice visits, including during consultations and surgery, as well as exchanges in staff kitchens and corridors.
The authors then carried out a thematic analysis to gauge how particular narratives were used, consciously or not, to maintain or disrupt the prevailing status quo at work.
Their analysis revealed "highly significant" client sexism, with clients often demanding a male vet or insisting on a second opinion from "one of the boys."
These attitudes were rarely challenged by senior (male) vets, "partly because of their being oblivious to the problems, but also, presumably, for fear of upsetting the client, suggest the authors.
Some of the interviewees did seem to be outwardly sensitive to gender issues, yet were unaware of their own sexism.
The researchers cite an example of a male large animal practitioner who suggested that chauvinism was dying out, but then went on to say: 'They [women] can...use their charm in situations, which do require some physical strength to actually just get the farmer to help'.
Issues of physical weaknesses were frequently expressed by both sexes, particularly in relation to large animal work, despite it often being a question of technique rather than strength, note the researchers. Once again, this view was rarely challenged.
The narrative of an enforced choice between career or family was often subscribed to by both sexes, but was "entirely absent from male accounts, as were issues of future fatherhood," point out the authors.
"These assumed responsibilities then become conflated (unproblematically) with either the sheer impossibility, or lack of desire, for women to seek senior positions in their practices," a viewpoint that is reinforced by women's self-deprecation and the long working hours culture of the profession, they add.
And with one notable exception, they found once female vets had children, they were assumed to be on the 'mommy track' and were no longer taken seriously by the practice, manifest in no longer being given complex cases or considered for promotion.
These findings are important, insist the authors, because of "the potentially ethical and legal implications of practices that conflict with equal opportunity policies and values."
But more than that: "Often female vets were subject to outright sex discrimination." This will only worsen the risk of burnout, which is estimated to affect one in five female vets within five years of graduation, they suggest.
Currently, few women work in large animal practices, hospitals, or academic research, say the authors. But "vets do not readily recognise these issues and some even refuse to acknowledge their existence."
All this has implications for recruitment and retention, and ultimately the sustainability of the profession, they suggest.
Women themselves don't seem to want to challenge gender hierarchies and entrenched masculine cultures at work either, suggesting that gender awareness training both in management and the veterinary college curriculum is needed, say the authors.
"This could raise issues of discrimination around gender and other closely related problems such as age, so that students are equipped to recognise and challenge discourses of limitation and discrimination before they become normalised, internalised, and entrenched," they conclude.
Commenting on the findings, Daniella Dos Santos, British Veterinary Association Junior Vice President, said: "This study provides further evidence that sex discrimination is an ongoing issue for veterinary professionals.
"The results also chime with our own research on discrimination in the veterinary profession, which found that sex discrimination was the most common type reported (44% of incidents) and is particularly prevalent in academic settings and in production animal, equine, and mixed practices."
She added: "It is completely unacceptable that so many women in the veterinary team continue to experience discrimination not just from clients but from members of our own profession. The veterinary team must become a safe and supportive environment for everyone."
Peer reviewed? Yes
Evidence type: Observational; qualitative