This is the time of the year that we celebrate and encourage girls’ interest in STEM subjects, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math. Heidi Brenegan, Director of Marketing at AERC, sat down with Sarah Humphrey, one of AERC’s board-certified veterinary criticalists, to discuss Dr. Humphrey’s veterinary career and women in veterinary medicine.
What did you want to be when you were little?
I don’t remember having specific career goals, but I always liked solving problems. And I liked nature and animals. I remember when I was in the eighth grade, I watched a vet work on our family horse’s hoof that was injured, and I was hooked. I visited the University of Illinois Veterinary College when I was in ninth grade, and I loved the large animal building. I thought the vet students seemed so knowledgeable, and I remember being struck by how much the place felt like a human hospital. That visit really solidified my interest in becoming a veterinarian, and at the time, I wanted to be an equine veterinarian.
What did you like to play as a child?
I grew up in the country, so I loved to be outdoors as much as possible. I always played with my boy cousins because I didn’t like to play with dolls, and we would build forts and pretend we had a village. Everyone had their own role. If you talked to my cousins, they would tell you terrible stories about how I was always the President, or the dictator, rather! Those stories are true. I definitely liked to boss them around!
Why do you think that even though 80% of veterinary students are female, large animal medicine is still male-dominated?
Male veterinarians do tend to gravitate towards large animal medicine more so than female veterinarians. It’s harder for women to be accepted by the clientele in large animal medicine—both horse owners and food production animal owners seem to trust men more. I think that in the large animal world, especially that of food production animals, there is a different mindset regarding the roles of women; women unfortunately are still viewed as belonging in more traditional roles. There is also a physical component of large animal medicine that affects how people view women and their ability to perform those roles. I do think female veterinarians are becoming gradually more accepted in equine medicine, though.
What was the biggest obstacle you encountered in becoming a veterinary specialist?
The veterinary internship is very challenging; you work long hours for very little pay, and it’s hard both mentally and physically. Once your internship is complete, it’s really hard to get a residency. There are lots of very deserving people who want a residency, and they don’t get one because there are a limited number of locations offering a residency program and a limited number of available slots within those programs. You are trying to get your residency during your first year after vet school, typically during your internship year and there’s a lot of networking and research involved. You use a match service to help you find one, but ultimately, it has to be a fit; the university or private referral teaching hospital offering the residency has to want you, and you have to want to be there. You have to demonstrate that you have exhibited success in learning and are a excellent practitioner–plus your personality and how you fit into their program has a lot to do with it too.
Why do you think women now dominate the small animal veterinary medicine field, and not other areas of medicine, like human medicine?
I think that a larger percentage of women have an affinity for veterinary medicine due to the nurturing aspect of caring for animals. Human medicine has that same nurturing aspect, but it’s primarily nurses who take on that role—caretaking isn’t really expected of MDs. Both veterinary medicine and human medicine have that science and problem solving aspect that can be attractive to both men and women, but I think veterinary medicine requires more caretaking of its doctors.
What is the balance of women and men in small animal specialty practice? As faculty in veterinary teaching institutions?
My impression is that the balance between female and male specialists is about 50/50, which doesn’t reflect what the graduating veterinary classes are, which is 80% female. Nor does university faculty reflect that, as it is more male dominated than what would be expected given that most vet school classes are largely made up of women. Faculty has likely been in those positions for some time, and so university faculty still commonly reflect the historically larger percentage of men as veterinarians instead of the current reality. I also think the long-held misconception that men are better leaders still resonates within the university setting, so there may be a tendency, rather than a conscious effort, to favor men for faculty and teaching positions. The same might be said of specialty practice as well; virtually every medical director (a senior leadership role within a practice) for whom I’ve worked has been male.
You have a daughter. Have you made attempts to provide certain toys or not provide others to encourage an interest in science, technology, engineering, or math careers?
I have made a conscious effort not to mold my daughter in any one direction, actually! She plays with cars, and she has a stethoscope, but when she wants to play with dolls or art supplies, I encourage that too. I feel strongly that all kids should follow their hearts and be allowed to do that, especially by the people who love them the most.