March is Women’s History Month, if you didn’t know. I work in a strange profession, one that has changed quite solidly in demographics from its original incarnation to its current status, graduating classes of row after row of- well, men, mostly- now replaced, to an 80% extent, by women. I spend a lot of time talking about veterinary medicine, and I would say about 80% of the time I am talking about it with women (who’d have guessed?)
Does the changing demographic matter? Yes and no. I may be a little prejudiced here myself, but I think women are pretty badass and are doing a bangup job in veterinary medicine. Like their male counterparts, they’re practice owners, associates, specialists, leaders, and, you know, individual people with their own strengths and weaknesses.
Whenever I mention the idea of exploring that concept and what it had meant for the field, editors all run screaming. You can’t, they say. It’s too controversial. There have been some attempts, like this one from Dr. Don Smith at Cornell, but the conversation is by and large stagnant. Fortunately for me, I have no major sponsors to frighten here in my own little corner of the net, so let’s just go ahead and go there, shall we? It’s not like no one is talking about it, just not out loud.
So we’ve all heard of Lean In, right? Sheryl Sandberg’s go get ’em tome extolling women to jump on in and take the bull by the horns? Yes, that was very nice, and excellent advice for a particular target group who want to be Sheryl Sandbergs. All you gunners out there- you know who you are- read and take note. And for the rest of us, who maybe want a break from running at full throttle at career advancement for a little while in order to live life?
I’m here to tell you that it’ll be OK. And guess what I’m going to do? I’m going to use math, because I’m a woman who loves math AS WELL AS SHOES, and I also think more women should be saying out loud that you can like both. I write my own rules. You, by the way, should as well.
1. Logistical Growth Curve: Up, Up and Away
Let’s start with the typical career trajectory, as defined by the Sandbergs of the world, like a logistical growth curve:
And in all the talk about women in the workplace, the one elephant in the room is always this: women sometimes choose to have babies. As do men, albeit in a less direct manner. And women sometimes want to take some time to stay home with their children. (Men do too, yes, but when we’re looking at a general trend here, I’m stretching to think of a single male veterinarian who left the field to be a stay at home dad.)
And in honor of Women’s History month, I am going to commit to words the experience I had, that my friends and I have all spoken about in hushed tones and felt we couldn’t discuss out loud because controversy and all. This was my experience. YMMV.
From the moment I set foot on campus, motherhood was presented in a subtle but unmistakable light as an either/or phenomenon when it came to veterinary medicine. Either you went all in or you went home. Women who took a year off to have a baby got eyebrow raises and sighs of “too bad she took the spot from someone who really wanted it,” as if pregnancy opened up a small but permanent hole in one’s brain through which all your knowledge dripped out, bit by bit, until all you were capable of is popping pacifiers in mouths and talking about Robeez. If you really wanted to be a vet, you would have not chosen to have a kid- especially in school.
This doesn’t end outside of school. I’ve been asked in interviews if I was pregnant (thanks for that, carb bloat I guess?) or planning to become pregnant, which is as illegal as you are thinking it is. I’m glad the guy asked it though, so that I knew where he stood on the topic. I’ve sat in meetings, 7 months pregnant and bloated from 12 hour emergency shifts, while the medical director’s best piece of advice to the interns was, “motherhood and medicine don’t mix. Mothers are terrible vets.” I’ve heard of a person who fired their veterinarian for having two maternity leaves, because she is ‘clearly not committed,’ because she wouldn’t give him her cell phone number while she was out on leave. The nerve.
So what’s the message here to women who want to have a family? If you want to be a good vet, you come back to work two weeks later and find a good nanny. By the way, I completely support any woman who wants to do this. The key word here, though, is “want.” What about the women who don’t want to do that? Get out. You don’t deserve to be here.
2. Extinction Curve: Down and Out
I’ll ask for a raise of hands- and I’ll be the first to put mine up: who has been told in an interview “I don’t like hiring young women because they always have babies,” as if all women inevitably do this, and those that do should be ashamed of their lack of commitment. Slacker.
Cue the sad trombone. You, my female friends, are now an extinction curve. Even the possibility that you might one day want to do something so egregious as reproduce is enough to keep you from getting hired in some places. I can see how that might make the women who choose not to have kids potentially a little irritated with the women who do. This is really, really counterproductive. But it happens.
The weight of a family is going to drag you right on out of there.
Being the troopers that they are, I’ve seen some amazing women fight tooth and nail to hold on to their professional commitments full bore despite the fact that it wasn’t exactly what they wanted to be doing at the moment, thinking that was their only option. Then they quit, never to be heard from again. They have been told that you are 100% in or you are a failure, and so they left.
And boy is that a shame. Wanting a personal life- whether that means kids, a hobby, a passion outside the field- is not only all right, it’s pretty darn important when it comes to retaining one’s sanity. I’m a big fan of that.
There is a reason we have one of the highest suicide and depression rates among professionals, and part of it is our own doing by having such distaste for those who strive to live a life outside the office. Martyr complexes only get you so far, and it’s become ingrained as part of the definition of what veterinarians do. I promise you this: I am so, so much better at what I do now than I was when I was stressed, overtaxed, and resentful. I am grateful once again to be a veterinarian.
3. Steady State: Fluctuating around a stable baseline
Now: let’s review what really happens out there in the world (no one will tell me my population biology course was a waste of time! Viva la diff eq!) Real life, messy, biological populations that are stable (though not necessarily stationary) enter what’s known as steady state, sometimes up, sometimes down, but maintaining height:
Who doesn’t want stability? Life- and the average vet- is tougher than we give it/her credit for. If populations can bounce back from plagues and droughts surely we can manage to have a kid, or vacation, or a marriage or divorce or whatever distraction that comes with being human without having to panic and toss away an entire career.
When I went back into general practice after two years of emergency medicine punctuated by two pregnancies, I hadn’t done a routine spay in a year and a half. I was freaking out. I was convinced it was as if I possessed virgin hands and somehow I would mess the entire thing up. I stood over the patient, my boss in the next room in case of mass emergency, and guess what? I did it as if I had been doing it just the day before. Muscle memory is an amazing thing, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
You tune out to take care of things and come back better than ever. This is how leaders are born. By cutting out a huge percentage of our field from believing they have what it takes to succeed long term because they want a breather, we’re killing off our future leadership.
When the increasing numbers of women in the human medical field pushed this same sort of reckoning, asking for flexibility and balance, the end result was happier doctors and both women and men who benefitted from it. Maybe you don’t want kids, maybe you want time to pursue hiking the Appalachian trail or to take care of an aging parent or further dominate your field. You deserve that too. The old timers tut-tutting the up and comers when I was in school a decade ago may still be hand wringing and bemoaning the fact that the new generation doesn’t want to work 80 hours with one day of vacation a year, and guess what? They’re right. Nothing wrong with that. Not everyone can or needs to be a Sandberg.
When I was in school, one of my best friends was a woman named Carrie. She is awesome. Like me, we both decided halfway through that we weren’t all that interested in being small animal veterinary practice owners, and by junior year our colleagues were taking bets on who was going to leave the profession first.
We both did, in our own way. But we did it on our own terms, and we both came back, which is more than I can say for some of my really amazing classmates who opted out under the weight of unrealistic expectations. I am a writer, and now, in a strange twist I never anticipated, I’m exploring a new subcategory of medicine in hospice care. Dr. Carrie is- get this- travelling to the world’s hotspots as a public health consultant. She just got back from Peru, Indonesia and Thailand. THAT IS SO COOL.
Obviously trying to cover gender issues in one post is like trying to sum up War and Peace in a paragraph, but someone needs to start the conversation. Success in the veterinary profession the way we define it now stacks the deck against a whole lot of people. So let’s redefine what it means to be a successful veterinarian. Find a steady state. Your steady state.
To all you new grads and my old friends who are all emailing me saying they think they are ready to leave the field, I have this to say: leave if you need to. It’s OK. You can come back, you can. And if you don’t want to that’s ok too. If you want to single mindedly pursue dermatologic domination at an academic institution, you can do that too. This is a really, really cool field, and you are allowed to make your own path through it. You will always be a veterinarian no matter how you occupy your day, and don’t let anyone who chose a different path tell you otherwise.
Stay. We need guides on all the paths up the hill.