Women students outnumber men

Amy Olson

Just a generation ago, women had only a small presence in the University’s veterinary education program. But following a nationwide trend, more women are studying veterinary medicine now than their male peers.
Eighty percent of the 1998 first-year class is female, said Larry Bjorklund, admissions director for the college. Bjorklund said the national average has hovered around 70 percent throughout the 1990s. This is up from one female student out of 58 students in 1969.
While a better professional environment entices more women to enter the field, economic concerns might be luring potential male students away for more lucrative careers, said Micky Trent, associate dean for academic affairs.
Men might be turning away from the profession because of the profession’s relatively low income. Trent said veterinary medicine is not as financially rewarding as other professions, and those men who feel the need to be the primary breadwinner might turn toward higher paying jobs in business or human medicine.
Trent said veterinarians earn an average of $38,000 a year. Greene said fields like computer science, which might only require a two-year degree, often pay more.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, Mignon Nicholson was the first woman to earn a veterinary degree, graduating from McKillip Veterinary College in 1903.
Trent said some women were admitted to veterinary schools during World War II, when the number of male students dropped. But the University admitted its first class of veterinary students in 1947, and the first female student entered the school in 1969.
Laurie Greene, associate director of the college’s outreach program, said male professionals did not believe women had the strength needed to work with large animals. Greene said the agricultural origins of working with large animals might underlie the attitude that veterinary medicine is a “man’s profession.”
Greene said that attitude carried over as house pets became the focus of veterinary practice.
The bias against women began to change about 20 years ago, Trent said. When she was admitted to the University of Georgia’s program in 1977, she said about 20 percent of her classmates were women. During her second year, the number of women admitted rose to 30 percent.
Bjorklund said during the early 1980s the number of female veterinary students grew to about 50 percent.
But physical strength is not considered important in veterinary medicine now.
“A 1,500-pound animal is going to have its way regardless if you weigh 100 or 200 pounds,” Greene said. “Women can do just about anything in veterinary medicine.”
Greene said veterinarians understand more about the psychology of treating animals, including horses and cows. The invention of tranquilizers help animals relax and enable veterinarians to better treat their patients, she added.
The high price of equipment and drugs to treat animals is driving up the cost of veterinary care, Greene said, while veterinarians are not able to charge the same prices for services.
Greene said while insurance covers the $5,000 to $8,000 cost of human hysterectomies, veterinarians can only charge between $120 to $150 for a similar procedure.
“An x-ray machine costs the same whether you use it to treat animals or humans,” Greene said.
While managed care programs minimize the cost of treatment to human patients and support physician salaries, Greene said the lack of veterinary insurance lowers the earning potential of veterinary providers.
The high cost of veterinary education alone might be enough to cause some potential vet students to reconsider. One year of medical school tuition for Minnesota residents costs $9,876, while veterinary school tuition costs Minnesota students $16,540. While students in both schools graduate in debt, physicians make two to four times the average veterinarian’s salary, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
But unlike physicians, veterinarians can still establish private practices. For fourth-year student Heather Case, that advantage would also allow her to run her own business in addition to practicing medicine.
Still, changes within veterinary education and practice are opening doors for women. Greene said more women are entering large animal medicine, while the growth of specialty practices is providing opportunities for advanced training.
Susan McClanahan, a second-year resident at the college, is specializing in large animal medicine. Unlike physicians, who are required to go through residency programs, veterinarians can opt to do residencies to specialize in fields like oncology or internal medicine.
Greene said more and more veterinarians are specializing in companion animal practice, or treating house pets, while smaller numbers of doctors are choosing to treat both large and small animals or solely large animals.
The growing number of “exotic” pets such as ferrets and iguanas has also provided new avenues for veterinary students like Annalise Prahl, a third-year student in the college.