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Most veterinarians are women, but they still face sexism in rural areas where they’re most needed

Dr. Bailey Lammers (left) and vet tech Sadie Kalin in a photo from 2019. That year Lammers opened Gavins Point Veterinary Services PC in Crofton, Nebraska, and had her first child. “It’s a lot more challenging, I think, for the mom, especially with newborns and everything to be away and have to go on calls in the middle of the night to, you know, pull a calf or those kinds of things," she said.

When Dr. Bailey Lammers started her veterinary career nearly a decade ago in her home state of Nebraska, she joined a minority of women practicing in rural areas.

At first, Lammers said clients were hesitant of her ability to care for their livestock.

“There would be times where they would call in and be like, ‘I don’t want the female,’” Lammers said.

Dr. Bailey Lammers prepared to measure a heifer's pelvis size in northeastern Nebraska in this 2019 photo. Lammers practices in rural Nebraska, where she often deals with large animals on farms and ranches. While women make up the majority of veterinarians in the U.S. by far at nearly 70%, they're not as prevalent in rural practices where there's a shortage of vets.
Dr. Bailey Lammers prepared to measure a heifer’s pelvis size in northeastern Nebraska in this 2019 photo. Lammers practices in rural Nebraska, where she often deals with large animals on farms and ranches. While women make up the majority of veterinarians in the U.S. by far at nearly 70%, they’re not as prevalent in rural practices where there’s a shortage of vets. Christina Stella / Nebraska Public Media

Being part of a traditional family and a veteran of the Air Force, Lammers said she hardened herself to criticism from men and eventually built a list of supportive clients. In 2019, Lammers opened her own practice, Gavins Point Veterinary Services PC, in Crofton, Nebraska, the same year she had her first child.

“The ones that don’t believe that I should be doing what I do — because I am a mom or a woman or whatever — those are just not my clients,” she said.

Lammers’ experience as a veterinarian reflects a national trend. In 2009, the number of women practicing veterinary medicine grew to outnumber men and has only risen since.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2023, nearly 70% of veterinarians were women. That statistic is likely to increase, as the American Association of Veterinary College reports 83% of the veterinary medical class of 2027 are women.

But experts say rural veterinary spaces are still largely dominated by men.

“Those practices tend to be smaller, much more isolated, and tend to be more geared towards working with farmers and ranchers,” said Clint Neill, a veterinary economist at Applied Economics Consulting.

Neill said farming and ranching is a male-dominated field, and as a result, women veterinarians are unlikely to locate in rural practices and even less likely to own them.

Even though they make up the majority of practicing clinicians, only about 40% of the country’s veterinary practices are owned by women.

Neill also pointed out a pay gap among veterinarians who own their practices, with male owners making up to $100,000 more than their female counterparts. According to his research, pay gaps also arise when men have more experience and work in specialized areas.

After publishing a study on the topic, Neill said he faced criticism from people in the industry who argued women charge less for their services and work fewer hours, both things he said the study controlled for.

Not allowed into vet school

Most experts say the reason for the increase in women veterinarians is a natural shift from old models to modern ones.

“The very, very traditional version of veterinary medicine was that the veterinarian, the doctor, was always a man,” said Dr. Laura Molgaard, dean of the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. “Women were not even allowed into veterinary school.”

Many schools refused to admit women on the grounds they would leave the field to become mothers. If they were admitted, women were barred from taking certain courses. When the Civil Rights Act of 1972 was passed, preventing discrimination on the basis of sex in education, such practices were no longer allowed.

Less than 4.6% of veterinary students were women at that point, according to Dr. Tamara Hancock, an assistant teaching professor at the University of Missouri School of Veterinary Medicine. By the late 1970s, the number quadrupled.

“I want someone to explain the data to me in a way that is anything other than that we employed discriminatory practices until the federal government said you cannot have money unless women also have a similar opportunity,” she said.

But Hancock said this, along with a new emphasis on empathy in the field, is why schools started to value female enrollment.

“This is the history. And does it inform the trajectory of women in the profession? Absolutely,” she said.

Women in leadership

For Hancock, discrimination based on gender is the only explanation for the lingering gap in wages.

“It’s not -– these women need to negotiate more – all these men were able to just negotiate themselves up tens of thousands more dollars,” she said. “That’s just implausible to me.”

She said pay gaps are just one of the ways gendered habits continue to permeate the industry, despite the fact that more women are veterinarians than ever before.

Kate Czarny, a second-year veterinary student and one of Hancock’s students, has noticed a lack of acknowledgement for women in the industry.

When interning at a large animal practice in Wisconsin, Czarny said farmers were often uncomfortable with having a woman veterinarian make livestock calls.

“They want their same thing that they’ve always had,” she said. “They don’t want some 20-something year old girl fresh out of vet school coming and working with their cattle.”

Motivated by this and the statistics showing that fewer women own practices, Czarny became president of the university’s Women’s Development Leadership Initiative.

“That's what this organization is focused on, is giving these leadership opportunities to women and helping them build their skills, so that their confidence builds and they're ready to go take on leadership positions in their own clinics,” she said.

The shortage of rural practices

Experts warn more veterinarians are needed across the board.

Dr. Bailey Lammers said when she first began working as a veterinarian in rural Nebraska in 2015, farmers and ranchers sometimes would ask for a man to be sent instead.
Dr. Bailey Lammers said when she first began working as a veterinarian in rural Nebraska in 2015, farmers and ranchers sometimes would ask for a man to be sent instead. Courtesy Dr. Bailey Lammers

“There has been an increased demand for veterinary services over the last four plus decades with a relatively flat supply,” said Molgaard.

She said this shortage of veterinary services is particularly strong in rural areas because livestock medicine requires more capital with less return.

As an incentive many schools have developed loan repayment programs for veterinarians who work in designated shortage areas.

In Nebraska, Lammers anticipates even rural industries are bound to be dominated by women soon, given the high number of women entering veterinary schools.

For her, that’s even more reason to start supporting women who go into large animal medicine.

“Whether the older generation likes it or not, we're going to need everybody to help, you know, raise animals and keep them healthy and keep our food supply healthy,” she said.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

Copyright 2024 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.
Harvest Public Media

Harvest Public Media

Harvest Public Media reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues through a collaborative network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest and Plains.

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