A few years ago, I went to a college reunion celebrating 25 years since the first admission of women. I sat next to a professor of clinical medicine in her later years, who had qualifications and accolades galore. At the time, my kids were one and three and I was working two days a week as a first opinion small animal vet. During our conversation she launched into an accusatory tirade about how I was a classic example of the leaky pipeline of lost female talent, the basic concept being the further up the professional ladder, the higher the proportion of men to women, especially in STM (science, technology and maths).
At the time, I confess, I was mildly incensed. I enjoyed being a mum and working part time in a role where I felt safe and comfortable. Fast forward only a few months and with a bit more sleep on board, I felt a growing need to climb another layer of Maslow’s triangle and push myself out of my comfort zone. I needed challenge and to increase my levels of motivation. Fast forward four years and I now feel firmly back on the career track.
I’ve learned so much through becoming a parent; I am all the richer as a result. I’m now heading back into the mainstream with more capacity to cope with the flow. This has been possible thanks to flexible working that can move with the ebb and flow of family life and my various projects: namely, computer-based working from home three days per week, and locum clinical work to fill the gaps. That’s not to say it’s easy. Putting the kids to bed and then having to log on for a few hours has its downsides. I’m never away from work as it’s just the flip of a laptop lid to get me back in the “office”. However, this has enabled me to make most of the school runs and take on additional roles within the profession. I would find all of this difficult to juggle if I was working the same hours within the rigid structure of practice life, especially during the school holidays.
The traditional male dominated practice model of 8am to 6pm, late evening consults, weekends and on-call was often facilitated by the wife answering the phone, providing support and being primary carer for the kids. In our modern era of increasing equality in what were formerly traditional male and female roles in both the home and professional life, working practice has changed little. Other than the out-sourcing of out of hours work and corporatisation, the hours and rota demands are largely unchanged.
The problem with this? To quote Mary Beard (the author of Women & Power: A Manifesto) “You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.” Obviously, not all veterinary roles are suited to flexibility and working from home. However, the sooner we work towards facilitating flex in the veterinary industry, the more we increase working possibilities and therefore retention of women (and men) with household and caring responsibilities. Whether it’s job shares, working from home, school hours or term-time-only roles, businesses which lead the way in enabling women to stay in work without the need to constantly juggle childcare will be the places to work.
Similarly, in academia, a few alternative residencies exist allowing individuals to undertake a longer part-time course to specialisation. Many of the comments on the Vet Mums Facebook group indicate residencies are only considered doable prior to starting a family. Obviously, there are those who have successfully juggled both, but often with a great degree of compromise and understanding, even sacrifice, for the whole family. We need to make further education and specialisation accessible and normal alongside family life to ensure equal opportunity for parents.
We have fantastic female role models at the forefront of our profession, so we know it’s possible. In a feminising profession, we need to facilitate as many women as possible to develop into tomorrow’s leaders. Veterinary Woman is a useful website with a vision to share their stories, provide resources and create a community to inspire and support women to be at the forefront in every area of the veterinary industry. Personally, I like to think I didn’t leak out to drop into the bucket of mediocrity, I went through a different pipe. The more alternative pipe routes we can create into leadership positions, both clinical and non-clinical, which embrace flexible working and family-friendly lifestyles, the more women (and men) will be able to realise their full career potentials.