On International Women’s Day 2021, the Australian Veterinary Association proudly celebrates women within the veterinary profession – for their contribution to animal health and welfare, and for their inspiration to other women to become veterinarians – one of many factors influencing increased female representation within the veterinary profession in Australia.
“Becoming a veterinarian was a lifelong dream of mine. My mum says that as soon as I could talk, I would run around telling people that I wanted to be an ‘animal doctor’ when I grew up.” “Our local veterinarian was sensitive to the needs of both our pets and family – she inspired me to develop my communication skills to serve as a public health educator,” said recently graduated veterinarian Dr Marlena Lopez who works in Victoria and was named the AVA’s Veterinary Thought Leader of the Year in 2020.
Whilst women now make up almost three-quarters of the veterinary profession, there are still challenges facing female veterinarians around equality of pay and access to work.
“I think the biggest challenge that women face in veterinary medicine is overcoming adversity due to their gender. Females now comprise the majority of vet science graduates, however this change has occurred across generations. The profession is still very top-heavy with men, and there is still a gender wage gap.”
“Sexism is yet to be eradicated from the veterinary profession, however, I believe with greater awareness of the difficulties that women face, the profession as a whole and the portrayal of the role that women play within it, will improve over time,” said Dr Lopez.
South Australian veterinarian Dr Alejandra Arbe-Montoya works in small animal practice, mentors recent veterinary graduates and is also completing a PhD in workforce challenges and moral distress within the veterinary profession.
With research showing that female human health nurses experience higher levels of moral distress than their male counterparts, Dr Arbe-Montoya suspects the same might apply to female veterinarians – an additional challenge for women that needs to be overcome.
“Moral distress is my biggest challenge. I have a very personal view of how animals should be treated in this world, and society doesn’t always treat animals that way. I feel that my reason to wake up every morning is to make this world a better place for animals. There are few greater rewards than to alleviate the suffering of a vulnerable being that can’t advocate for itself.”
“There are, however, other veterinary workforce issues that contribute to the emotional toll and reduced ability to deal with the emotional burden of moral and ethical stress that we face as veterinarians,” said Dr Arbe-Montoya.
Supporting veterinary mental health and wellbeing is a challenge for the veterinary profession, with veterinarians four times more likely to take their own life than the general public.
“The needed changes involve providing people – regardless of gender – with the necessary tools to respond to moral and ethical challenges in a way that reduces the emotional burden of those situations.”
“Providing a safe space in the workplace for speaking up, reducing overwork, managing workloads, improving work-life balance and reducing financial stress for veterinarians could help us manage the load of emotional stressors related to veterinary clinical practice including moral distress,” said Dr Arbe-Montoya.
As we raise awareness of these challenges within the veterinary profession, together on International Women’s Day 2021, we celebrate the achievements of our female veterinarians whilst striving for gender equality and provision of the best support for all veterinarians.
Pictured left: Dr Arbe-Montoya, right: Dr Lopez