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Shaping a profession

Monday, November 28, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:11 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Marcia Shannon has three passions: her family, education and swine. A native of Red Oak, Iowa, Shannon grew up on her family’s generations-old farm raising hogs, cattle and row crops. Ventures in 4-H and Future Farmers of America clubs sparked her early interest in agriculture — a passion that would make Shannon a minority throughout her education and into her career.

The only female member of her high school’s FFA club and now MU’s only female faculty member in animal sciences, Shannon understands what it means to work with a male majority. She calls the experience “about the exact opposite” from that of the female students she now teaches and advises.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that national college enrollment for 2004 was 55.6 percent female and 44.4 percent male. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that by 2014 the percentage of women in college will increase by 21 percent, while the percentage of men is projected to grow by 12 percent.

At MU, female students are especially predominant in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resource’s division of animal sciences, where they are 71 percent of the population. This pattern matches that in the College of Veterinary Medicine, which graduated 57 women and seven men in May.

Shannon, an associate professor in animal sciences and a swine nutrition specialist, said being a minority has made her “pretty thick-skinned,” often making gender a non-issue.

“Sometimes you forget that you are a female in a male-dominant career,” she said. “Even here in the department, a lot of times people will tell me ‘You’re the only female member of the faculty,’ and sometimes I forget that.

“You are just doing your job and you forget that you are male or female.”

Changing faces

The educational experience of Kelley Thieman has been the opposite of Shannon’s. She is a member of the class of 2006 in the College of Veterinary Medicine, slated to graduate 17 men and 46 women next May.

Although Thieman has had mainly female classmates during her graduate experience, she is concerned about gender equity when she enters the profession full time. To date, there has only been one instance in which her role as a female veterinarian has been challenged — but it was memorable.

“We all went out to a farmer’s house, and there were two girls in the truck and three guys and the professor, who was a man,” she recalled. “We all got out of the truck and the farmer said ‘Oh, you brought three helpers.’ Just like we weren’t even there.”

Thieman, who grew up 45 minutes outside of Detroit, was pursuing a degree in large-animal veterinary medicine. A love for horses in her youth set Thieman on the path to becoming an equine veterinarian, but recently she switched to small-animal surgery.

“I still change my mind sometimes,” she said. “I like small-animal surgery, but sometimes I wonder if I will miss working on horses.”

Freshman animal sciences major Callie Holmes is starting her college education with the same desire to work in equine medicine. Fueled by a high school genetics class and a passion for horses, Holmes wants to be a large-animal vet specializing in equine reproduction genetics.

Whether Holmes stays on the path that Thieman veered from is yet to be determined, but according to Ron Cott, associate dean for student and alumni affairs at the veterinary school, many students shift from a large-animal focus to companion-animal medicine.

Changing numbers

Eighty-six percent of animal sciences undergraduates are interested in veterinary medicine, and many of them filter into MU’s vet school, said George Jesse, professor and director of undergraduate studies in the division of animal sciences.

The veterinary school, once male-dominated, has had more female students than males every year since 1994. The trend is apparent at other veterinary schools nationally, according to associate dean John Dodam. Dodam recalled that his alma mater, Ohio State University, was predominantly male until 1986, one year after he graduated.

The influx of women into veterinary medicine is one of the biggest shifts within that profession, Cott and Dodam said. Why there are more female students in animal sciences and veterinary medicine is mostly speculation; no definitive studies have been done, said professors in animal sciences and veterinary medicine interviewed for this story.

However they concur that young men may be lost to technical schools that offer a faster entrance into the workforce and the income that follows.

“The question is raised: Is it possible that men look at the bigger picture — that if they go to technical school they have the opportunity to earn more money sooner than to delay their career until after obtaining a baccalaureate degree?” Jesse said.

Cott believes economics was the driving force that brought more women into veterinary medicine in the late 1980s and 1990s, because they were more willing to work fewer days and take a lower salary.

Thieman added that men may not think a veterinarian’s salary is sufficient to cover the costs of raising a family.

“I think that men look at the pay and what they’re willing to do for that,” Thieman said. “And this is a lot of work to not get paid a lot of money.”

According to a recent Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association, male veterinarians make a starting salary of $45,015 — $1,549 more than their female counterparts. The survey conducted by the journal had a return of 75.3 percent female and 24.7 percent male respondents — numbers representative of the national gender makeup of the class of 2005, according to Dodam.

Changing the balance

As an adviser to female students, Shannon tries to show that a life of career and family is possible. In her campus office, photos of her baby hang next to her three academic degrees.

“Most females I know in science are not married and don’t have children,” Shannon said. “If they do, they never really make it to dean positions.”

This generation’s student population is thinking about what Cott calls “the balance of life.” He said students, both male and female, truly care about having a profession and family. Female veterinarians are less inclined to own a private practice, Cott and Dodam said, because they want flexible hours.

With six months left in school, Thieman is considering the ways her future career will affect the life she desires.

“I think that equine vets work so many hours, and I do want to have a life, and I do want to have horses and be able to enjoy them at some point,” Thieman said. “I want to work on small animals and have some days off.”

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