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The veterinary profession has not always been accessible to women. 

In 1963, for instance, there were only 277 female vets registered in the whole of the US. Since this period, however, much has changed. The number of female veterinary professionals has exploded – many now dominating practices across the world [1]

Yet, despite this, a large proportion of female vets and veterinary support staff still experience discrimination in the workplace. 

According to the British Veterinary Medical Association (BVA), female vets are often subjected to overt gender discrimination – which might explain why they tend to show lower levels of job satisfaction, confidence, and ambition overall.

These experiences are worse once women start having families. According to research, around 73% of mothers in the veterinary profession have felt that they have been discriminated against because of their maternal status. Furthermore, 32% have reported being excluded from administrative decisions [2].

Although this problem is pervasive, the struggles that mothers face are not often given much attention beyond a few online groups. 

In this article, we explore some of the challenges pregnant women and mothers face in the workplace, and what we can do to make things better.

Read: Diversity In Veterinary Medicine - Is it Still The ‘Whitest’ Profession?

Balancing Work and Life: The Realities of Being a Mother in Veterinary Medicine

Edie Jones* is a veterinary nurse working in the UK. She has two kids and has experienced many ups and downs being a working mother in this field. 

‘When I had my second child, I was the first person ever to be pregnant in my practice,’ Edie said, recalling her experiences before the pandemic. 

‘The practice manager didn’t have a clue what was needed’. 

‘Numerous times I had to walk out of the theatre because my clinical director had just unfastened the anesthetic circuit without thinking. She would pull me into her room to help with big dogs, letting them jump all over me. I continued trying to be as careful as I could, but at around 34-weeks, the pain in my hips was just excruciating.’

After giving birth, Edie tried returning to work. But with the clinical director now running the show, she found it difficult to reintegrate- especially with a newborn at home. This led to her eventually finding alternate employment elsewhere. 

‘Although I managed to find work and am settled now, I did consider leaving the profession. I was paying a lot in child care for just three days a week (nearly £1200 some months), which is pretty much all my pay. Thankfully, my new job pays a bit more.’ 

Unfortunately, Edie’s experiences are not unique. According to research, 87% of mothers in the veterinary profession believe that their career has been affected by having kids. And for many mothers, this stigma is subtle but pervasive [3]

‘In my very first job interview my boss asked me if I was planning to have kids – I didn’t realize he shouldn’t have asked that!’ says Kaley Monroe*, a veterinarian from the South West of England. 

‘Another boss, when talking absent-mindedly to me about which candidate she should hire for a job said – well, she has just got married, so she will probably have kids soon. So it might not be a good idea to go for her. She caught herself and back-tracked, but it shows the thought process is there for those who are hiring.’

‘I think many practices put you in a vet mom box after you have children,’ Kaley continued. 

‘And you have to work very hard to break out of that if you want to go into practice ownership or progress in your career.’

Read: Sexism In Vet Medicine- ‘Women Were Told To Work Harder For Less’

Breaking Stereotypes About Motherhood

The ‘vet mom’ box is a label many women struggle with. 

Often, there is a stigma being a working parent in practice. Because women tend to go into part-time work after having kids (or leave entirely), many are labeled as ‘risky hires’ by practice owners and managers (even though this is illegal).

What is also often left out of the narrative, however, are the realities of being a working parent. Though many mothers choose to stay at home, others have to out of necessity. 

The added injustice is how this problem only seems to affect women. Although there are many fathers who also struggle with balancing work and family, it is far less common for them to be stunted in their careers as a result. 

If you look at veterinary leadership, for example, there is clearly a gap between men and women. Though women make up 57.1% of practicing members of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS), only 6.5% are directors. This is in contrast to 24.5% of men in directing positions. This is a crying shame given how many women have dedicated their lives to the profession. 

The Problems Facing Working Moms: Childcare, Mom Guilt & More

So why is it so difficult for moms to return to work after giving birth?

One of the biggest challenges is childcare fees. 

Between 1970-2000, childcare costs grew by 2000% in the US. This is primarily due to the high levels of physical labor needed to run centers (which cannot be cheaply outsourced), the high cost of real estate (especially in cities), and tight regulations.

The average cost of enrolling your child into a full-time child-care program in the US is now $16,000 a year- a huge proportion of a parent’s income [4]. In the UK, enrolling a child under two into a full-time nursery costs £13,700 ($18,305)- which is even worse [5].

These fees, especially for veterinary support staff, can be quite high.  

‘A lot of nurses leave the profession when they have kids’ says Nikki Roberts, a practice manager based in London. 

‘Honestly, a lot of women just can’t balance the hours and the childcare, mainly because it’s just too expensive, and wages are too low’. 

Even after parents get past the nursery-age hurdle, many still have to struggle with finding flexible childcare to fit around school timetables. 

‘School only lasts from nine till three, and then after that childcare finishes at six. This is a problem because most clinics don’t close at that time,’ says Dr. Emma Clark, a veterinarian also working near London. 

‘I don’t have to do all of that now my kids are older, but when I did it was really, really tough. Getting the kids to school, and then childcare, whilst fitting in a whole veterinary schedule in between – it’s not easy.’

On top of this, due to societal pressures, many women are expected to carry out a large amount of ‘unpaid’ labor in the home and take the primary childcare role.

This creates a dilemma for many, who may think that they ‘have to do it all,’ or be ‘everything to everyone,’ when really, what is needed is more compassion in the workplace.

Managing Mom Guilt

Although the odds are stacked up against working mothers from the very beginning, many still experience guilt around not being present in their children’s lives. 

‘I used to think I loved my job when I worked full-time pre-kids, but after having them, I realized it was actually like being in an abusive relationship’ one mother told us. 

‘Even when I wasn’t at work, it was all I thought about. There was just enough reward to make me think I was really needed/special, but also a sentiment that this was as good as it got, and that I would never find a better job somewhere else.’

‘However, when you have a person at home who does actually need you, it’s very different. But the hangover of feeling like you have to be at work even if you’re ill, be available 24/7, and care about work above everything else is pervasive.’ 

Often the mom guilt hits hardest when something unexpected happens at home. 

‘The worst pressure I find is if a child is ill (i.e. you could physically do your job) but there’s no childcare option so you have to call in sick,’ says Camilla Edwards, a former veterinary professional who now runs her own business.

‘I find this less of an issue now that I have my own business. If I’m sick or my kids are sick, then I don’t get paid – that seems bearable and fair.’

Making The Veterinary Profession a Better Place For All

‘[The veterinary profession] is way more family-friendly than when I started 15 years ago’ says Camillia. ‘But there’s definitely room for improvement.’

For a tangible change, practice owners and managers need to accept that the profession is rapidly feminizing, and that flexible work will become an expectation- not an exception- in the future. 

There also needs to be more resources available for working parents so they are aware of their rights, and what is/is not acceptable employer behavior. Too often are we hearing stories of discriminatory or downright dangerous behavior directed towards pregnant or working women, which is not ok. 

Being a veterinary professional should not be incompatible with family life. And with the veterinary hiring space currently inundated with job vacancies, practices that aren’t accomodating to these needs will find it increasingly difficult to fill vacancies. In other words, businesses must adapt or risk being left behind. 

 

*Some names have been changed to protect the identity of the women.

  1. ‘The History of Women in Veterinary Medicine in the US.’ https://todaysveterinarypractice.com/the-history-of-women-in-veterinary-medicine-in-the-u-s/. Accessed 15 Nov. 2021.
  2.  ‘Perceptions of Maternal Discrimination and Pregnancy/Postpartum ….’ 6 Mar. 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7069349/. Accessed 15 Nov. 2021.
  3.  ‘Perceptions of Maternal Discrimination and Pregnancy/Postpartum ….’ 6 Mar. 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7069349/. Accessed 15 Nov. 2021.
  4.  ‘Why Child Care Is So Expensive – The Atlantic.’ 26 Nov. 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/11/why-child-care-so-expensive/602599/. Accessed 15 Nov. 2021.
  5.  ‘Childcare Costs 2021/22: How Much Do You Pay In The UK?.’ 15 Sept. 2021, https://www.daynurseries.co.uk/advice/childcare-costs-how-much-do-you-pay-in-the-uk. Accessed 15 Nov. 2021.

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