Veterinary women: past, present and future

The gender balance of the veterinary profession has changed dramatically in the last 30 to 40 years and having once been very much in the minority, women now account for almost 60 % of practicing vets registered with the RCVS.1 iStock_000014890682_LargeThis is a statistic is likely to increase even further considering that almost 80 % of students enrolling in the veterinary degree course are female.1 This article examines how this gender gap has developed and asks ‘does it really matter?’

Pioneering the way

It wasn’t until 1922 that the first women – Aileen Cust- achieved MRCVS status,2 three years after the Sex Disqualification Act of 1919 which allowed women to enter the profession. Interestingly, Aileen had already been a qualified veterinary surgeon for 22 years despite not having been eligible to be registered with the RCVS. On graduating she received a testimonial and personal recommendation from the founder of Edinburgh veterinary school which was enough to gain her the position of assistant to the owner of a practice in Ireland.

Reportedly, Aileen went about daily visits riding side-saddle, before returning home to dress for dinner. She remained in practice in Ireland until the outbreak of the First World War in 1915, after which she appears to have spent her time volunteering her veterinary services to the care of the horses on the western front.3 Come 1919, the RCVS couldn’t deny Aileen her veterinary status any longer and after a revision course at the RVC she passed the board’s oral exam to become the first female vet.

Numbers of women in the profession began to rise from the 1920s but by 1960 women still accounted for less than five percent of the profession. The Society of Women Veterinary Surgeons was founded to promote women’s interests in the field by RVC graduate Mary Branker in 1941. However, by 1990 the numbers of women had increased so much that Mary and other representatives from the society felt that it was no longer needed and so stopped its activity.

It’s astonishing to think how rapidly the demographics have changed – from first female vet to a large female majority in under a century.

Why the change?

Many explanations for the recent feminisation of the profession have been forward, although most are speculative. Here’s a summary of some common suggestions.

  • Gender discrimination. The first is elimination of gender discrimination which was marked by the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975. This was later strengthened by the Equality Act of 2006 which specifically stipulated that employers had to be active about promoting equal opportunities rather than leaving it up to individuals to challenge poor practice.
  • Statistically, girls are more likely to achieve better grades throughout school than boys and as legislation makes it easier for universities to recruit the top grades, this widens the gender gap. More emphasis on coursework and modular exams, less physical and outdoor activities and lack of male teachers have all been blamed for boys’ underperformance.4
  • Conditions and inspiration. It’s also been suggested that better working conditions, improved chemical restraint of animals and an increase in female role models in physically demanding jobs have also had an impact.4
  • One proposed reason for the decreased interest of men entering the profession is the perception of it being poorly paid. Some take the Darwinian view that men are naturally more competitive and likely to be lured by a more demanding, higher paying job. Men also tend to revise their career plans based on decline in occupational prestige, employment security and promotional prospects. However, other researchers have suggested that women are just as affected by tuition and salary.5
  • Fewer private practices and opportunities to own a practice may also be a deterrent for male vets.
  • A self-reinforcing cycle. It’s widely accepted that as women move into an occupation men become less attracted to it, so it becomes a self-reinforcing cycle. To some this might be a vicious cycle, to others it may seem virtuous.


A closer look

When you delve down into the figures of current veterinary practitioners, the gender gap is significantly larger among the younger ages. For example, in the 26-30 year old age categories, 75 % of vets are female.  Perhaps this is not surprising considering the increasing numbers of female veterinary graduates. The question is, given time, will we see a similar disparity among all age groups? Or will a higher proportion of women continue to drop out of the profession, perhaps to focus on family?

What’s interesting is that when the proportions of men and women who hold RCVS qualifications are analysed, men seem to outweigh women in the majority of categories. For example, of the 1,965 Certificate holders in 2014, over 1,000 of these were men. Similarly, numbers of male Diploma holders, RCVS specialists and RCVS Fellows dwarf the numbers of females with equivalent qualifications. Among vets, only female Cert AVP holders outweigh similarly qualified men. The average age of men in all of these categories is typically higher than women. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the numbers look quite different for vet nurses, with almost all of DipAVN holders being female.

Does it really matter?
Some argue that while the growing proportion of women in the profession will undoubtedly have an impact, much of it will be positive. More females in the profession may drive changes such an improved work-life balance, shorter hours and more flexible working patterns.

However, statistics demonstrate that females are less likely to assume leadership roles and that their average earnings are typically lower than their male counterparts.7 There are around twice as many men who are sole principals as females, three and  half times as may partners and four times as many male directors. The worry is that fewer men could result in lower salaries for the whole profession, that there will be fewer people to take up business roles and that it will lead to a dearth of private and large animal practices.

We are not alone

This is not just a discussion relevant to the veterinary industry as other professions face similar feminisation issues. For example, more females than male are graduating into law but it’s still men who hold prestigious positions such as judges.  Comparable trends in terms of higher male salaries and more men in prominent positions are also seen in multiple industries in the UK. In fact, the UK has an above average gender pay gap when compared to other EU countries.7 However, veterinary medicine seems to be leading the way in terms of speed of feminisation so it’s unlikely that a retrospective comparison will aid our predictions for the future.

Whether positive or negative, increasing feminisation will no doubt have a significant impact on our profession. What are your views – do you feel that the situation is cause for concern or that gender shouldn’t really make a difference? Please post your opinions in the comments section below – all thoughts welcome!


  1. RCVS Facts 2014
  2. RCVS Knowledge heritage and history British veterinary medicine timeline,
  3. Hall S A (2004). Cust, Aleen Isabel (1868-1937), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press
  4. Lofstedt, Jeanne. “Gender and veterinary medicine.” The Canadian Veterinary Journal7 (2003): 533.
  5. Felsted KE, Volk J. Why do women earn less? Vet Economics 2000;41:33–38
  6. Lincoln, Anne E. “The shifting supply of men and women to occupations: feminization in veterinary education.” Social Forces5 (2010): 1969-1998.
  7. Volk, J. O., Felsted, K. E., Cummings, R. F., Slocum, J. W., Cron, W. L., Ryan, K. G., & Moosbrugger, M. C. (2005). Executive summary of the AVMA-Pfizer business practices study. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 226(2), 212-218.
  8. Plantenga, J., & Remery, C. (2006). The gender pay gap. Origins and policy responses. A comparative review of thirty European countries. The co-ordinators’ synthesis report prepared for the Equality Unit, European Commission.