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The workforce crisis part 4 - Why the focus on gender?

The collaborative research project between the University of Exeter and BVA on workforce issues in the veterinary profession has prompted many questions. In this series of blogs researcher Chris Begeny will explain why their team framed their study as they did and how they interpreted the results.

Issues of gender and gender representation in the vet profession are a particularly salient topic right now. This is in part because of how women’s representation in the profession has been changing over recent decades, and in part because of new regulation and general levels of awareness around the gender pay gap in this profession and in others. Altogether, this makes gender a particularly relevant and meaningful social category to focally examine.

Why did you decide to focus on gender in this study?

Moreover, going into this study we anticipated that individuals’ perceptions and attitudes about women in the profession – whether they still face discrimination, the roles they are best suited for, their abilities and competences compared to men, etc. – would vary substantially across individuals in the profession.

This is in part because there is a lot of different information and ideas out there that individuals could potentially focus on – and/or ignore – when developing their perceptions and attitudes. So, to say, the circumstances are ripe for people to ‘flexibly’ focus on information that can, perhaps for deeper motivational reasons, lead them to justify a variety of possible attitudes and perceptions about women in the profession.

For instance, when trying to discern whether women still face discrimination, how much does one focus on the current proportion of female vets in the UK vs. the proportion of women represented at higher levels (e.g. employers/partners) vs. the extant pay gap?

What does a vet 'look like'?

When considering whether young female vets will readily be as competent and qualified as their male counterparts, how much is one’s consideration rooted in the more traditional conception of what a vet typically does or ought to ‘look like’ (historically, male) vs. a more contemporary conception (more mixed in terms of gender, if not leaning female).

Ultimately, this variability of information and ideas makes gender a point of examination that is both generally important and potentially ripe for subtle bias to rear its head.

Notably, we do imagine that similar forms of bias exist along other social demographic lines – discrimination that favors [disadvantages] those who are [not] white, cisgender, able-bodied, middle-to-upper class and/or heterosexual for example (i.e. bias against those whose race, ethnicity, class, etc. don’t readily fit the common perception of what a highly adept and competent UK vet typically looks like or ought to look like). This expectation is rooted in past evidence demonstrating widespread bias against, for instance, racial minorities (e.g. Quillian et al., 2017).

That said, practically speaking, because representation of individuals along these demographic lines remains quite low in the vet profession it may be harder to conduct a study that systematically manipulates one of these demographic features (in a vet that is to be evaluated by respondents) in a way that doesn’t end up making that demographic feature such a salient aspect of the vet that respondents start ‘self-monitoring’ their responses so to avoid appearing biased (even if their true attitudes and perceptions suggest otherwise).

In other words, if respondents are highly cognizant of this vet’s minority status, and also aware that current social norms are such that ‘expressing bias/discrimination is not okay,’ they may be quite hesitant to express their true perceptions.

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