Paige Schoonveld has never known a world when most veterinary medicine students weren’t women.
Schoonveld, 23, is a second-year student in K-State’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Originally from rural Mulberry, Indiana, she applied to and was accepted into the college’s early admissions program as a senior in high school, but she knew she wanted to be a veterinary long before that. She didn’t live on a farm, but she had several friends who did, and when Schoonveld started raising animals through 4-H and FFA, those friends allowed her to keep her animals at their houses.
“From about sixth grade on, I knew that’s what I wanted to do, and it never changed,” she said. “I’ve had good mentors who have encouraged me and told me it’d be hard, got me to focus on my leadership skills. It’s been a hard road, but it’s been worth it.”
Schoonveld is one of 91 women out of 115 total students who enrolled in the selective veterinary medicine program for the class of 2022. In the past decade, K-State’s percentage of female veterinary students has hovered between 74% and 87%, and the class of 2022 sits at 79% female.
That’s in line with a gradual increase in the percentage of female students who have enrolled in the nation’s veterinary colleges over the same time period, and since 2008, the female majority of students has grown 5% to 82.6%.
But the increasing “feminization” of veterinary medicine at K-State and other veterinary medicine institutions stretches back farther to 1986, the last time there was parity between genders. As the industry education leaders have dealt with those shifts over the past several decades, an increasing number of women are finding success in the field, which in turn has attracted more women to a career where other women have already “made it.”
“I’ve grown up in an era when it has been a very female-dominated profession, so there’s never been anyone telling me that I can’t do it as a profession,” Schoonveld said. “I think it’s been empowering to see the classes ahead of me be dominated by women.”
Reasons for the shift
When Dr. Peggy Schmidt, associate dean for academic programs and students affairs, received her DVM in 1997, most of her graduating class was female, but she still faced challenges in breaking into the industry as a female practitioner. Some clients would insist that she was an anomaly in a profession that was supposed to be dominated by men, and others would make dirty jokes to try to make her feel uncomfortable.
“At first, I thought that was a really sexist thing to do, but generationally and culturally, that was acceptable,” Schmidt said. “If I didn’t show any reaction, they gave up, since it wasn’t any fun anymore.”
Schoonveld said that the beginnings of the gender shift in veterinary medicine precede her time in the profession, but in the years since, researchers and industry experts have identified a few reasons to explain the increase in women.
• Reduction of barriers: K-State’s graduated its first veterinary students in 1907, but all seven were male. It wasn’t until 1934 that Helen Richt would become the program’s first female graduate, and it wouldn’t be until after the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Women’s Educational Equity Act of 1974 that women would begin to enroll in significant numbers in the then-male-dominated college.
“Even if they were academically qualified, they weren’t allowed to take those seats that the men were taking,” Schmidt said. “As those barriers fell away, more of them got the seats.”
• Brains vs. brawn: Technological and scientific improvements have made the job safer and easier, particularly in dealing with large animals. Schmidt said that those advances have made the job more attractive for women.
“There’s less of the muscle and brawn, and we’re allowed to use our brains more,” she said. “There are some women that will get offended at that, because they’ve done the physical work, like roping cows and wrestling sheep. You don’t have to anymore, and that opens that up to more women.”
• Value of a DVM: According to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s 2019 economic report, women who obtain DVM degrees stand to make hundreds of thousands of dollars more over the course of their lifetimes compared to their male counterparts, once education, training and other career investment costs are considered against future earnings. In 2018, a DVM was worth just under $600,000 for women considering obtaining one.
But for men, that same figure sat a lot lower at $191,000, and in fact, most men were better off skipping a DVM and picking other professions between 2014 and 2016, as the report suggests they would have lost as much as $100,000 over the course of their lifetimes. The report explains that compared to other professions, male veterinarians have a higher opportunity cost, or loss of potential income in other professions, than female veterinarians.
In any case, the pay gap still exists in the veterinary medicine field, although that gap is narrower than in other professions. According to the same report, female veterinarians could expect starting salaries that were about $2,600 lower than male veterinarians.
• Women as nurturers: As more women enter the industry, there are more opportunities for them to specialize in areas like companion animals, which Schmidt said has been more attractive to women.
“Woman are characterized as being more caring, so as companion animals are increasingly considered family members, it’s more acceptable to have more nurturing, caring people in those roles,” she said.
Specialties like companion animals also allow women more opportunities, as they typically have more family-friendly opportunities, Schmidt said.
• Shifts in attitude: The gender shift in veterinary medicine, however, has also contributed to some negative attitudes potential male applicants might have toward the programs, as they might not want to join programs that have a stigma of being “women’s work.” A 2010 Southern Methodist University study found that for every 1% increase in women veterinary students, about 1.7% fewer male students applied the next academic year.
The study also found similar attitudes in other professions that are becoming more woman-dominated, such as pharmacology, and suggests the same phenomenon could happen in other traditionally male-dominated fields like medicine. When that happens, wages have began to stagnate, leading to further loss of men in those professions as they look for other opportunities elsewhere to fill the role of being the male “breadwinners,” Schmidt said.
Does it matter?
From an education standpoint, not much has changed to accommodate the now mostly female students in K-State’s vet med program, although the program has had to add more locker room and bathroom space for women. A recently renovated bathroom on Trotter Hall’s third floor now boasts 10 stalls for women, compared to four on the older floors, and that’s helped avoid a daily “stadium-like” rush for the stalls, Schmidt joked.
While the college does not discourage students from becoming pregnant, administrators also recommend that students notify them and work with them to avoid exposure to health risks inherent in the veterinary medicine education, like radiation, animal diseases and hazardous chemicals.
The challenge K-State veterinary medicine administrators face with an increasingly female student body, however, is ensuring the program is diverse, not just in gender, but across all demographics.
“Our goal is to serve society,” said Dr. Callie Rost, assistant dean for admissions for the college. “In our veterinarians, it’s important that we have all different types of people to serve a changing society. A lot of people feel more comfortable seeing a doctor that looks like them, and that goes for veterinarians as well. We’ve seen a lack in applications from ethnic students, but that’s something that all vet med programs are trying to improve.”
While the college doesn’t pay attention to gender in making admissions decisions, Rost said the college has actively sought to attract all people through camps and programs that work with children of all demographics. However, women still apply to vet school at higher rates than men, and those same rates are reflected in the college’s admissions and enrollment, Rost said.
There’s been a similar change in the number of women holding leadership positions. At K-State, three of the top five administrative vet med positions are held by women, including Dr. Bonnie Rush, who was named dean of the college in June after being interim dean for two years.
As older, mostly male veterinarians retire, it’s women who have replaced them, particularly in more rural communities. Schoonveld, treasurer of the college’s chapter of the Veterinary Business Association, said that at the college, she’s focused on extracurriculars and opportunities to learn skills what would add value to a potential future practice.
When female veterinarians take over for male veterinarians, that can require both sets of veterinarians to help their patients, staff and communities transition to dealing with a female veterinarian, Schoonveld said.
Schoonveld said that in her externships — which are experience opportunities where veterinary medicine students shadow industry professionals across the country — she’s seen more clinics adopt female-friendly practices, like child care rooms. However, women who choose to go into solo practices will have to figure out issues like child care or maternity leave, if they choose to have families.
But generally, the veterinary medicine community has been supportive, and so have many of the rural communities where K-State’s graduates often end up, Schoonveld said.
“Luckily, vet med is full of caring people who want to do right by their pet owners,” Schoonveld said. “We don’t have far to go in the struggle for gender equality, but in every aspect, women are just as capable, just as reliable and just as driven to get the job done as a man. Whatever that looks like.
“Whether that’s fixing a prolapsed uterus in a cow or spaying a dog or amputating a limb — all those things, we’re finding out that women are more and more capable,” she continued. “We’re all put on this earth to do good things, and women can do a lot of good.”