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ScienceDecember 13, 2016

In 2016, the Massey chancellor says women vets are worth ‘two fifths’ of men. And we wonder why too few women are in science

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Photo: Getty Images

Chris Kelly, the Chancellor of Massey University, has been quoted saying that women are less valuable veterinarians because they tend to leave the profession once they get married and have a family. That’s precisely the sort of outdated thinking that is hampering women in STEM subjects of all kinds, says Kate Hannah.

Back in June, alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos wrote an extensive opinion piece on women in science entitled “Here’s why there ought to be a cap on women studying science and maths” which I read so you didn’t have to (it’s what historians do, read awful things so we can try to understand the culture that produced them; see also Mein Kampf). In summary, he argued for a cap or restriction of the number of women accepted to science and math-related courses, because of the expense of training them only to have women “drop out” in large numbers – for reasons Yiannopoulos attributed thusly: “they either can’t cut it in highly competitive environments or they simply change their minds about what they want from life.” He went on to claim that those few women who do remain in science don’t encounter the glass ceiling – “it’s more like a crystal escalator: women are far more likely, all else being equal, than men to get jobs in STEM these days.”

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Now that’s enough lurking in the dark places of the Internet for me. Why is Yiannopoulos’ anti-women tirade relevant? Well, a week or so ago, Massey University’s Chancellor, former Landcorp chair Chris Kelly, claimed in Rural News that changes to their veterinary science degree, to start from 2017, were in large part a reaction to a feminisation of the degree’s cohort. Kelly stated that 75-80% of vet science first years are women – which differs from his experience of vet school “many years ago”, and suggested that this is because of difference in rates of maturity: “that’s because women mature earlier than men, work hard, and pass. Whereas men find out about booze and all sorts of crazy things during their first year.”

So far, no problem – Kelly states that although “today it’s dominated by women – that’s fine.” So what’s his point? If there’s no problem with the field changing to being dominated by women, why is Rural News interviewing him about radical redesigns to first year pedagogy? It seems that Kelly – and perhaps others – do have a problem with vet science being largely made up of women. Not because of the women themselves, but because they drop out in large numbers: “one woman graduate is equivalent to two-fifths of a full-time equivalent vet throughout her life because she gets married and has a family”. (Kelly has since apologised for his comments, while acknowledging that the information he gave “was not factual”).

Quite apart from the most unfortunate reference to women being the equivalent of two-fifths of men – the so-called “Three Fifths Compromise” meant that slave states in pre-Civil War USA counted each slave as 3/5 of a white person for legislative representation and taxation (so sorry about yet another incursion into a dark part of the Internet, or human history) – in Chris Kelly’s depiction of the state of the veterinary profession in New Zealand, male vets don’t have families, don’t leave the profession, and don’t want to work in cities or within pet-focused practices. All the issues with burn-out, rural-urban divides, and personal choices about the kind of veterinary medicine practised will be solved if we simply reduce the number of women studying veterinary science. That perhaps the profession might need to adapt its practices to better meet the needs of working parents, both women and men, doesn’t seem to occur to Kelly, or the veterinary professionals he says are calling for change.

Kelly claims that the redesign of first year is to redress this imbalance – hence the focus on practical engagement with veterinary work right from the start – and that this will contribute to ensuring New Zealand has enough large animal vets: “some struggle with some of the tasks on farm because there is a hard, physical component in a large-animal practice.” Taking a look at the teaching and research staff within Massey’s Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences seems to belie Kelly’s claim – there are women large animal technicians, the specialist in equine surgery is female, women experts in bovine health, and men whose research focus is on companion animals. However, what is also made clear when looking over the research and teaching staff within veterinary science in New Zealand, is that though the field is apparently female-dominated at undergraduate and professional levels, leading to the ‘crisis’ of high fall out rates Chris Kelly describes, only one of the senior academics in this area of science critical to New Zealand’s economy is a woman. The 22 professors are all male; one of the eight associate professors is female. (And she’s a ‘production animal veterinarian’ – what was that factoid about women not working on large animals again?). It’s apparent that despite the feminisation of the profession, veterinary science research and teaching is dominated by men in senior decision-making roles.

Perhaps the problem that Kelly is trying to put his finger on is this, from Nicola Gaston’s excellent, essential Why Science is Sexist. Gaston describes a comment made to her by a scientific colleague after a talk in which she’d outlined the extent of unconscious bias in science:

“A particular comment at the end of my presentation has stayed with me, so vividly that I could sketch the furrowed forehead of the man who made it. ‘But if these studies are correct, and what you are saying is true,’ he said, ‘then we should be very concerned about increasing the number of women in science, because as science becomes more gender-equal, it will lose status.’”

Nail. Head. The vet industry and the veterinary educators describe a problem with too many women, not enough people with large-animal skills, and a focus on classroom activities which apparently advantage women, to be fixed by on-farm, practical skills which will re-balance the field. Except that the field, like most scientific fields, is male-dominated at the top. Chris Kelly’s antiquated views on women, families, and job choices discredit the decision to redesign veterinary teaching, and ultimately the profession and the scientific field as well.

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