Lean On, Over, and Around

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?


Who said I hated her? I just have a different definition of success. Stop making us snipe at each other for goodness’ sake.

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:

logisticExcept instead of population growth, imagine perhaps income, or accolades, or whatever you want. Point is, you start slow, gain some momentum, then go out on top- ever moving upwards.

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.

logistic success

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:

steady state


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.

What made sense back then may no longer hold true.

What made sense back then may no longer hold true.

Redefining Success

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.

14K feet up in Africa. Wouldn't have happened without my DVM.

14K feet up in Africa. Wouldn’t have happened without my DVM.

Stay. We need guides on all the paths up the hill.

Filed: Adventures, Blog, Daily Life, Musings, Picks of the Litter Tagged: , , ,
  • VetChangesWorld

    Thank you so much for posting this. As a female veterinarian I’ve been chomping at the bit to see more material on these kind of issues in print. It shocks me that our industry journals aren’t talking more about it. There was a great talk at “IGNITE” at NAVC about how many of us women in this profession feel that it’s by being more “masculine” that we succeed. Perhaps because of this we try to ignore or deny this important part of who we are and the way our profession treats us.

    I’ve found it harder to find jobs in areas where I didn’t have family because it was assumed I would leave once I had kids to be closer to my parents. I’ve been told directly by the person interviewing me that they prefer to hire men instead of women because women are more likely to get pregnant. I’ve seen male colleagues get away with behavior that is never tolerated from my female colleagues.

    This is also a big part of why I wish there were more female veterinarians speaking on business and communication topics at our conferences. While many of our male colleagues are doing a great job on these topics, there is a component where I feel like the advice doesn’t take into account how teammates, bosses, or clients will react to me differently because I’m a woman. Perhaps it doesn’t make much of a difference, perhaps it does, but no one’s talking about it.

    As one of the women who feels strongly that I will want to continue working full time after having kids, it’s frustrating when so many people in the field, including women, tell me I will completely change my mind. Perhaps I will, but the presumption that they *know* I will is kind of infuriating. I completely agree that we should feel empowered to make whatever choices feel right for us and support each other through those choices.

    Again, thanks for sharing this.

    • I’ve pitched the idea more than once and been told, “too controversial.” Which to me is an indicator that the conversation needs to happen. I know many wonderful veterinarians who went right back into work after having kids without a doubt in their mind that is what they wanted to do, so if that is what you choose I find it shocking people would feel there is no precedent.

    • “While many of our male colleagues are doing a great job on these topics, there is a component where I feel like the advice doesn’t take into account how teammates, bosses, or clients will react to me differently because I’m a woman. Perhaps it doesn’t make much of a difference, perhaps it does, but no one’s talking about it.” Yup.

      It does make a difference. Again, that is a topic no one wants to touch because it usually devolves into stereotyping or accusations, but I’ve told my male colleagues that in conversation- just because you haven’t experienced it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

  • JaneK

    Rock on with your bad self, girl!! It’s amazing how many expectations we subconsciously try to live up to, and there is always a need for folks like you to make us re-think (or think for the first time) about why we do what we do. I loved the movie The Adjustment Bureau b/c it is about this very thing…. don’t just do what society (whether is the world or a professional society or what) expects you to do, do what brings happiness. And I will end on a quote from another movie I just saw: Success is the joy you feel.

    • I love that quote! Now I have to go look up the Adjustment Bureau…

  • Megan Taliaferro

    Great article and thanks for wading into those murky gender discussion waters! There’s so many ways to find success in our field and my own personal career happiness has been found working part time in a general practice. I think one of the ways we’re so blessed with this career is that part time gigs are so plentiful. I was just at a wedding surrounded by women with mba’s, phd’s, and lots of other letters behind their names. All of them had stopped working (full time, apparently part time wasn’t an option) and were beyond jealous of my 20 hour work week. Made me realize how fortunate I am! One question though, and I’d love it if anyone wanted to chime in here – is there really a way to work just those 20 hours? When I worked part time as an er vet, I would leave after my shift, transition my cases, and then not need to check in again until my next shift. Now at a general practice, I have solid relationships with my clients and I find it difficult to not check in, pop in, etc etc on my days off. If I send out bloodwork on a case and am not scheduled to work for the next two days, I hate to dump that phone call/interpretation on someone else. In addition, those clients know me/trust me and I like to be the one personally handling their pets follow up care. Rereading those words makes me sound so terribly type A! ๐Ÿ˜‰ Some days I feel like I’m doing a part time crappy job as a mother, part time crappy job as a vet….is it just that women can’t get away from the guilt of not being ALL things to ALL people? Anyone out there feel the same? Anyone? Bueller? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Oh I’m there too. And it’s interesting, because here we are talking about oversupply and underemployment, and in the meantime my MD is jobsharing. Like, the literally split their full time job in half, and it’s working great for them. Some teachers in my school do it too. Other fields are making this work, but first we have to give ourselves permission to tune out when we are gone. That is very much against practice culture.
      Being a professional and a mother is a constant exercise in guilt. That I know.

  • MGM

    Well, this just happened at the clinic I work at… I am a student (male, btw) working as a vet tech until I can apply to vet school. I have the major benefit of working at a very large private practice that employs 8 veterinarians. One of those veterinarians was just forced to leave and was replaced because she refused to compromise time to spend with her family (she has two very small children – under 2) She had been working part time (mornings to afternoon and every now and then a Saturday). Well, all of a sudden the boss wanted her to be available for all shifts including every Saturday. Well, she refused and tried to work out something more reasonable. Instead was told she wasn’t on the next month’s schedule. They forced her to leave because she wanted to balance family time when there was another vet on staff all the techs would have been happy to see leave due to poor job quality (his patient notes are a joke). So they replaced her with another male vet and made him full time (remember she was part time) and cut the hours of another female vet (without asking her) who is awesome and whose clients LOVE her. ๐Ÿ™

    • Thank you for commenting and sharing your story. I hate that this happened, but I think it’s important for people to see that it does, over and over.

  • E.A. Summers

    And do you think this only happens in the veterinary world??
    There are advantages/disadvantages to being female/male/of color/not of color…etc., etc.
    I am a female, computer programmer, sole proprietor/entrepreneur.
    As a business owner (SMALL business as are most vet clinics) for nearly 29 years and as a female, I can still say that I would wonder much the same and have similar concerns when hiring female persons in their child bearing years.
    Have you put yourself in the position of a clinic OWNER responsible for providing ongoing care for clients?

    • It’s a tricky topic. For every question you answer five more pop up, it seems, so I’m going to try to limit it to what you asked but again, it’s obviously complex.

      No, it doesn’t happen only in the veterinary world. Mommy tracking or whatever it’s boxed up as happens everywhere. However, I addressed this to my colleagues and as I can only speak from my own perspective, I limited my discussion to this field. I will say I do think veterinary medicine is somewhat unique in that the change happened so quickly, and dramatically. If IT, for example, went from its current demographic to what I’m describing in vet med in as short a period of time, the discussion would be happening. Right now no one wants to talk about the implications -in veterinary medicine.

      Have I put myself in the position of a small business owner? Yes, I have. The perspective of a small business owner is the main one to which we are exposed as a veterinarian. They drive the conversation. I am aware of their needs and desires and pressures. I am simply asking for the same in return. There are only so many years- yes, years- as an associate with no buy-in that I am willing to make the sacrifices associates are expected to make these days. It’s disproportionate to the ROI.

      I generally aim my posts towards the general public, but this was one slanted towards my professional colleagues. I don’t expect anyone outside the field to take an active interest in it, as it’s probably not that applicable to their lives. I wrote this to tell my colleagues, who are leaving in droves never to return, that you CAN return, once your outside demands die down. That was the first point. Take the time you need, then come back.

      The second point was to ask my profession to give this some serious thought. I don’t expect individual associates or practice owners to know or provide the answers, but I do think it is an issue for the industry to talk about a little more while trying to evaluate this in a dispassionate manner, which is near impossible to do. If 80% of your hiring pool were female persons in their childbearing years, would you seriously eliminate that 80% from consideration? 8 out of 10 potentially great employees? Veterinarians need to ask ourselves two questions:

      1. The demographics do not represent a slanted admission process but an accurate representation of who is applying to vet school. Why are men no longer interested in applying? I know for many people, the skewed debt/income ratio of this profession, which is much worse than a great many professions out there, are making it so expensive to many people that you simply cannot BE the primary wage-earner of a family as a new vet, so maybe the admissions pool is self-selecting towards those who are assuming they will be the second income. For many young mothers (myself included) it was cheaper to stay home than to work. I’m not sure what the most recent surveys indicate, but it’s a good question.

      2. If nothing changes, then what? Do we continue to drive out young mothers and replace them with new grads in a perpetual merry go round? You’re only as good as your willingness to work full time? Or do we see the future of the profession as a larger scale corporate model that is more able to accommodate part time work? Maybe the small business model is not compatible with the current demographic, and in that case we should not ask why these people/young grads/potential mothers don’t want that life but how to better attract those who will live up to what owners do want of them.

      Big questions, and not a lot of good answers. But it’s still worth talking about.

      • E.A. Summers

        >>I generally aim my posts towards the general public, but this was one slanted towards my professional colleagues.>>
        Sorry, I missed that.
        I am a proponent of personal responsibility, of understanding the consequences of our choices. My personal choice was to go solo vs corporate because I wanted the flexibility and a “family lifestyle”. I understood and accepted the consequences.
        CHOICES – consequences. Yes in the corporate world, you often sell your soul. I chose not to and accepted that I had to THINK about my “benefits”.
        I absolutely do NOT buy into any of the 1 and 2 your entreaty, BUT as I am not a veterinarian…I guess a mute point.
        We each make a choice as to lifestyle, income, benefits… If you are unable to make a decision regarding what is your passion – vs the income and accompanying lifestyle, well I don’t think it matters what you decide to do with your life.
        Maybe a knee jerk reaction on my part. I have NO love for woman-centric discussion.

        • Well, despite the fact that we don’t agree on a lot of the points, I’m still glad people can put them out there and talk about it without it turning into “you suck” “no you suck”. So thank you, I do appreciate you putting in your perspective (truly).

        • E.A. Summers

          Dr. V. When you reply appeared, I was just getting ready to enter an apology. While yes, we don’t agree, I feel my “tone” was inappropriate. I cannot explain exactly why this post stirred up some anger but regardless, I wish I’d cooled a bit and thought before firing off my responses because I DO agree that things can and should be talked about.

        • You don’t have to apologize. It’s a topic that really hits people personally, and I don’t really know why but I do know that it is so consistently painful to bring up that most of us just don’t. I guess that is an indicator that it IS a big deal. I’m sure you aren’t the only one who read this and went “!@#@!$#@!@” ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Marit Veeber

    YMMV, but I know several moms who are also awesome vets. Some of them are also old classmates and friends, and I’ve never heard any of them complain about being treated unfairly either at work or during interviews. Of course, this may have something to do with the fact that only 1/5 of my class were guys, and the fact that my country has a population of 1.3 million, so young women are encouraged to have babies ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Where do you live? It is both heartening and frustrating to know that it can be done, and so much of this issue is an American culture thing.

      • Marit Veeber

        I live in Estonia. I think there are women here who will absolutely relate to what you wrote about and women also tend to get paid less than men, but women vets have an advantage because they are the majority and, if things get bad, they can just go across the gulf to Finland where the social guarantees are even better and the wages are much higher.

  • Joanna Paul

    I thought I loved this post.. Then I saw David Bowie in one of my fave childhood movies and I REALLY loved it, lol! Seriously though, you’ve done something great for me today (& no doubt for many, many others!) I’m at home with my second baby and have questioned my worth as a vet many times while sitting on the couch feeding bub, maybe watching some awful day time television. I do want to go back to work and I also want to look after my kids. I think I can do both, and do both well. And while that causes my older, male associates to simply raise their eyebrows, and maybe shake their heads a little, your post has given me that little bit of needed confidence that it’s ok. ๐Ÿ™‚
    Thank you Dr. V!!

    • I’m trying to think back- it’s been a while- Barney, Teletubbies, Caillou. Somewhere in there, I said, I don’t WANT to be a FT stay at home mother, I like working. When I worked part time I felt my best and most balanced, so yes, it can be done.

  • Beth

    Excellent! I have been saying for 14.5 years now (I’m 53) that becoming (and remaining:-)) a mother was the first time I really felt prejudice/bias. And it continues today. It blows my mind and makes me angry. You captured my thoughts on all of this here in your post very well.

    • Thank you. I know it’s so controversial for many but I don’t know how refusing to discuss the experience is going to solve anything, so I’m glad this resonated with people.

  • Danielle Johnson

    I’m a vet who chose not to have children but I always felt like, because the potential was there, there was always a shadow hanging over me. I didn’t matter what my choices were, I paid the price for the choices of others. That kind of pissed me off. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that until all women have more freedom to make any choice they want, all of us pay the price one way or the other. At this point in history, we’ve had the freedom for awhile, we just haven’t been vocalizing the difficulties in exercising it. Since the discussions have really gotten going, I feel like Dorothy who always had the power to go home but didn’t realize it. Thank you for your frank and funny discussion. It’s such a relief to hear women talk about what I have known and felt for many years. Badass article!

    • Thank you! I think the ability to have choices, like you said, is what so many of us are drawn to- and that ability to craft a career and life that you find fulfilling is what makes you able to really be amazing at what you choose to do.

      • Danielle Johnson

        Yes! Having more choices in how I practice medicine, manage staff and balance my life led me to practice ownership 3 years ago. I try to create an environment at my clinic where staff have the freedom to excel at their jobs and advance their career without fearing their mistakes or the fact that they will outgrow what I can offer them. I do that because I want my staff to be amazing at what they do too.

  • Arianavet

    I just experienced my first clear mommy discrimination, when after my planned 2 months of maternity leave for my 3rd child, the clinic just stopped scheduling me, and basically said, “we’ll call you when it gets busy”. I am in a small town 1000 miles from anywhere with only 3 clinics, and I was only working Saturdays; THANK GOD another clinic wanted to hire me so they could be open Saturdays. The first clinic did a similar thing to another veterinarian mother a few months ago.

    Overall, I’ve had a good experience being a veterinarian and mother; I have always been up front when interviewing about my family plans so I don’t get into a situation where either side feels resentful. I did relief for a while and plan to again when I’m in a bigger area.

    I do work much less than full time (20 hrs/week until this 3rd child; now will be 10 due to limited options in this location as a military spouse). But when I’m at work I am dedicated to doing the best job I can that day, and I feel SO happy to be there. I love my career, but I love my children more… which does result in feeling guilty about both! But I do not experience the burnout that I have seen among my colleagues.

    Thanks for embarking upon the discussion. Veterinarians (male and female) who believe in work/life balance need to stick together; I’ve seen some great symbiotic family-balancing clinics!

    • I’ve seen them too, and I hope that one day they are the rule more than the exception. Some of the most amazing vets and practice owners I know were moms (one a single mom who rocked.) Their experiences gave them such perspective and empathy with clients.