AT a veterinary conference a few years ago I took a minute to rest my weary feet and readjust my bags of freebies in the bar area.
Next to me were two middle-aged men, clearly practice owners, discussing their staff and comparing the male and female vets. They were in agreement that the men had more confidence in their skills, meaning they were better at recommending diagnostics and procedures, and thus were better income generators for the clinic than the women. Their only lament was that male small animal vets were so much harder to find.
This conversation really stuck with me. Are women so much worse than men at charging? Do we really lack confidence in our skills to that degree? And if we do, how can we change that?
For my part I have never thought of myself as having a confidence problem (and I’m sure anyone who knows me would agree!), but I am very definitely my own worst critic, I dwell far more on my failures than my successes and I take any negative comments very much to heart.
I also tend to assume colleagues know more or are more capable than me, even when we are clearly equally matched.
I have been a locum for years and yet have not raised my prices by any significant amount over this time. This drives my husband (also a vet) mad but somehow I can’t bring myself to charge any more.
Am I alone? I doubt it. Although veterinary women don’t strike me as a bunch of wall flowers, I have had far more conversations about a lack of confidence or perceived inadequacies from my female colleagues than my male ones.
This may be that women are more likely to discuss their concerns and feelings and obviously this isn’t an exclusively female problem, but studies have shown that it is a significant issue.
Nor is it a phenomenon unique to the veterinary profession. Research says that while half of women in management positions in the UK have some self-doubt about their performance and careers, fewer than a third of men feel the same. Also, men renegotiate their salaries four times as often as women do and ask for around 30% more in like-for-like roles.
Perfectionism, expecting excellence in all tasks, avoiding challenges and questions unless we are confident of being able to complete them or being correct and obsessing over fine detail, is also far more common in women than men.
There is a dearth of women in leadership positions in many industries and veterinary is no different, despite our huge gender bias to the female side. I have written about this before and hopefully as time goes on this will change, but are we missing out because we have lower ambitions and confidence than our male colleagues? I think we are.
So how can we change this? First, let’s start off at a local level.
If the issues among practice principals relate to money, as they did in my over-heard conversation, then maybe they could take up more of a role in encouraging and training their staff. I think, on the whole, women are more empathetic towards clients and probably are more sensitive to charging and being perceived as “money-grabbing”.
I am lucky in that I have worked in practices with strong leadership, with an ethos of working to the highest clinical standards possible. Where suggesting testing, investigations and treatments is the norm, I have been actively encouraged to recommend them.
Creating a clinical atmosphere based on these principles overcomes this and is an approach also often welcomed by clients, and certainly one where our patients will benefit.
On a more national level, I think the universities have a role to play in preparing their students for the mental stressors and challenges they will face in their careers and give them the tools to cope with both success and failure.
Recognise our worth
As individuals, women need to recognise their skills, worth and be confident to stand up and display these.
We also need to realise that we cannot and do not need to be perfect, and that this career is one where we are constantly learning and improving – and making mistakes is part of that.
We need to be more definite in our career goals and demand equal pay (which we still don’t have according to the last SPVS survey) for equal roles.
The irony is that in veterinary medicine, especially small animal practice, is a profession where there should be no difference at all between the sexes in our ability to do our job, which makes the gender disparities we do have all the more obvious.
These are not solely down to self-confidence issues our female members have but where they are we need to be working together to rectify this and to support each other and ourselves.