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Female dairy vets: ‘Brains are more important than brawn’

Karena Elliott for Progressive Dairy Published on 22 November 2019

Veterinary medicine continues to change, and more female vets are working on dairies than ever before. While physical strength will always be a challenge, these animal health professionals are relying on brains over brawn to confront daily obstacles, including gender bias.

Dr. Kristen Edwards works for Tavistock Veterinary Services in Tavistock, Ontario. The large-animal team includes eight veterinarians practicing progressive production medicine in Ontario’s Dairy Belt.

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“My duties are split between regular herd health visits, data analysis and consultation, protocol development and bovine emergency medicine,” Edwards says. Before joining the Canadian practice three years ago, she worked as a dairy veterinarian at Perry Veterinary Clinic in Perry, New York, for two years.

Meggan Hain, DVM, is the managing veterinarian and animal care specialist for CROPP Cooperative (Organic Valley).

“I work as an animal welfare consultant with our dairies throughout the country,” she says. “We have about 2,000 organic farm members in the cooperative, with a majority being dairy farmers, but we also have eggs, pork, beef, turkey, produce and crop producers.” As head of the veterinary team, Hain oversees three additional professionals who provide veterinary, animal welfare, grazing and nutritional advice for CROPP farms, as well as technical expertise for the business operations.

Both Edwards and Hain have witnessed the feminization of veterinary medicine firsthand. “My 2014 vet class of 120 people contained only 20 men,” Edwards says.

Hain graduated from veterinary school in 2004. “Our class was about 80 percent women,” she recalls. “Of the 10 to 12 vets in my class who started in food animal practice, I only know of three who are still working in food animal, and we are all women.”

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These female vets often enter large-animal practices dominated by male veterinarians. “In both my current and previous jobs, I was the only female dairy veterinarian when hired,” Edwards says. “Since then, all new hires at Tavistock have been female, and we are nearly equal in a male-to-female ratio today.”

As they begin working with dairy producers, female vets are overcoming gender bias and resistance to change. They are tackling these obstacles armed with both knowledge and skills, getting the job done a little differently but just as well.

“Although there was some initial resistance by a few clients, the majority have always accepted and welcomed female veterinarians,” Edwards says. “Our clients understand that, although the methods differ in which we females may need to work, we can always get the job done efficiently and safely.”

“My second practice had just had their first female dairy vet four years before, so there were a few farms who were still getting used to having a female vet,” Hain says. “I had several farmers who questioned my ability because I was a woman. Fortunately, I had enough experience in practice by that time to be comfortable with my skills and ability and didn’t take it to heart.”

Both vets have been faced with gender bias and have found the need to prove themselves and their abilities.

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“I am a small, young, female working with large dairy cows, so the initial perception is that I won’t be able to get the work done,” Edwards says. “When I originally started at both positions, I was the only female bovine veterinarian on staff, and I did have a few situations where a client demanded a male to come on the farm instead of a female.” In those cases, Edwards’ senior partners would join her on the call to supervise, but they let the client see she was just as capable of independently completing the task. “The support of my male co-workers has been paramount in gaining client trust and confidence,” she explains.

“The second practice I worked for was owned by an older male veterinarian,” Hain says. “When I was hired, it was myself and one other woman, who was an excellent dairy vet. A few months later, the practice hired a third female vet – a new grad who was rather attractive. In passing, our boss asked my female colleague and me if we would be jealous that this young woman was more attractive than either of us. I forget who answered, but the response was ‘No. Appearances have nothing to do with our ability to do our jobs.’”

“Both of us were experienced dairy vets, and we were confident in our ability,” Hain says. “In thinking about this interaction, I didn’t feel discriminated against, as I felt my colleague and I were hired because of our ability and not our appearance. However, I did feel sorry for our new colleague, as she should have been taken seriously for her ability and not her appearance. On a side note, she is a wonderful person and became an excellent veterinarian.”

Occasionally, the discrimination even comes from other women. “I remember tubing a cow on a farm early in practice and having the farmer’s wife tell me she didn’t think this was woman’s work; she didn’t think we were strong enough,” Hain adds. “She was not harsh or hateful; she was simply stating her opinion.”

“Sometimes I feel as though I have to prove myself,” Edwards says. “I am OK with that as long as I do not have to prove myself more than any other male veterinarian.”

Both vets are quick to point out the advantages of being a female practicing veterinary medicine in the dairy industry.

Edwards explains, “Smaller hands and arms allow me to get both arms in for most calvings, which is great.” Hain agrees. “In many cases, calving can be a great way to gain farmers’ respect, as they are considered a ‘test’ in the farming profession,” she says. “If a young vet, female or male, can easily get a calf out which a farmer has struggled with, it is generally a game-changer.”

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“I’ve had many situations where the farmer almost seems in awe that I have resolved a situation they struggled with,” Hain adds. “In truth, during calvings, skill and experience have far more to do with success than strength or arm length.”

Another advantage supports longevity in the profession. “I think there may be a potential for fewer work-related injuries because I can’t just use brute strength to get all tasks done,” Edwards says. “I need to think of alternatives that are less physically demanding. We try to work smarter, not harder.”

“I know of a lot of older male vets who live in chronic pain because of the wear and tear of this job,” Hain says. “I also know several older female vets, most who are slight in build, working well into their 50s because they have learned to be wise about how they work. This has taught me that, sometimes, your disadvantages can become your greatest advantages if you are smart about them. That covers so many aspects of being a woman in a man’s world.”

“While I was in practice, I had quite a few farms who preferred to have women vets because they were calmer and more patient handling the cattle, and were not unnecessarily rough like some of the men,” Hain says. “The farmers appreciated their cattle weren’t stressed or rushed, and the female vets were more attentive and effective in their work. Many of these were my best dairymen, so I valued their thoughts and opinions.”

“We might be smaller, but that doesn’t mean we are any less competent,” Edwards says. “We just may do things differently. Though some may see it as unconventional, we chose our careers because we are passionate about large-animal health and supporting our clients’ businesses.”

“For a veterinarian, our minds hold more value than our muscles,” Hain says. “While traditionally the manual work has been what has gotten us onto farms, it will be the intellectual work which will make the farm money in the long run. So when it comes to picking a good vet, brains are more important than brawn.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: Kristen Edwards is pictured here at Cedar Rowe Dairy in Lakeside, Ontario. Edwards works for Tavistock Veterinary Services in Tavistock, Ontario. Photo provided by Kristen Edwards.

PHOTO 2: As part of her extensive experience, Meggan Hain worked at University of Pennsylvania’s Marshak Dairy. Photo provided by Meggan Hain.

PHOTO 3: Kristen Edwards, pictured here on Jansen Farms in Woodstock, Ontario, says calving is typically a “test” for a vet on the farm. If a female vet can get out a calf that a male farmer struggled with, it’s a “game-changer” for the working relationship. Photo provided by Kristen Edwards.

Karena Elliott is an international freelance writer who specializes in the agriculture industry. She makes her home in Amarillo, Texas.

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