Veterinary business leadership: An unsuitable job for a woman?

Professor Colette Henry MBA PhD FRSA FHEA, Head of Department of Business Studies,
Dundalk Institute of Technology

The evidence is clear: the veterinary sector is witnessing an unprecedented shift toward a predominately female workforce. Recent data suggest that today’s veterinary profession is characterised by young female vets mainly working full time in small animal practices, yet there are surprisingly fewer women than men at principal/director/partner level in these ‘veterinary businesses’. In fact, there are more than twice as many male as female sole principals, and more than four times as many male directors or equity partners. Surveys also suggest that female vets are disillusioned with their future career trajectory, and that they may be planning to leave the profession. This raises serious concerns, which become even more pronounced when we start to consider general trends in women’s business leadership/ownership across other sectors. Here’s what we know: women in the UK are half as likely as men to start a new business – any business; women perceive business leadership/ownership differently to their male counterparts; women tend to have less belief in their business and leadership abilities than men; business leaders and entrepreneurial role models tend to be predominately male. In short, regardless of the reasons, women are simply less prepared to come forward to take on business leadership roles.

So, what do we do? Well, I can tell you what we mustn’t do, and that’s think we can just do nothing. That strategy didn’t work for women’s business leadership generally, so there is no reason to think it might work within the veterinary sector. If we want to avoid a drastic reduction in the number of private practices and a significant increase in corporatisation, then we need to stop talking about the ‘problem’ and start implementing solutions. In this regard, I don’t believe there is a single big solution; rather, in my view, it’s going to take several small solutions being implemented across the sector.

Prof Colette Henry

Prof Colette Henry

If we look at the veterinary profession as being part of a larger veterinary ecosystem, then we can immediately see how every stakeholder has a role to play. Clearly, vet schools have a huge opportunity to develop young women’s business leadership potential simply because they have a captive audience over a prolonged period.

Veterinary business educators need to focus on ‘integrating’ rather than ‘inserting’ business leadership skills into the curriculum. They also have to be particularly mindful that women have a different perspective on business leadership when compared to men, and this needs to be accounted for in module content and pedagogy.

There is a dual challenge here: first, that of encouraging veterinary students to accept that a veterinary practice is essentially a business – an SME (small- to medium-sized enterprise) to be precise; and second, encouraging female vet students to see themselves in business leadership roles to the same extent as their male counterparts.

So, a change of mindset is required, hence the critical role of veterinary educators in preparing future veterinary leaders. But vet schools could also have a valuable role to play in providing CPD leadership programmes to graduates already in practice. This two-pronged approach could be highly effective, providing opportunities for female veterinary undergraduates to learn from young female graduates who are developing their leadership skills in the workplace. However, veterinary schools are only one component of the wider veterinary ecosystem. So I’d really like to hear from the private practices, the corporates, professional bodies and those involved in the wider veterinary business landscape too!

Colette Henry is Head of Department of Business Studies at Dundalk Institute of Technology, Ireland, and Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship at UiT-The Arctic University of Norway.
Read more about Prof Colette Henry→

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of either the RCVS or the BVA.

  1. Andrew Warde
    Andrew Warde says:

    With my veterinary career in the Army behind me, and no time spent in veterinary business, I may seem an odd contributor, but I am very keen to see the Vetfutures project succeed. In my experience, women are just as strongly motivated as men to progress in their careers and are just as capable of displaying leadership, even in the most demanding situations. If I were pressed to make any distinction, I have observed that some women can be more impatient about promotion than men, and can have an unshakeable confidence in their own abilities. Men, I found, may be more ready to accept the need to gain breadth of experience, more patient when waiting for the right opportunity to demonstrate their strengths, and more willing to balance the rough with the smooth along the way. Could this be part of the reason for the disillusionment in women vets to which Professor Henry refers, or does this merely reflect the Army’s selection system? One important aspect of good leadership is to provide opportunities for people in the organisation to achieve their full potential. This is the responsibility of the current senior members of the profession as much as of veterinary educators.

  2. Bill Bowler
    Bill Bowler says:

    I’m not sure that this is about the lack of leadership/enterprise skills amongst women: with time they will assume many of the lead positions in the profession. I think this is more to do with the frighteningly fast corporatisation of veterinary practice and the lack of opportunity that will be available to all young vets entering the profession. Being a clinical director or corporate partner sounds great but neither are the opportunity that being a partner or shareholder in a practice represents. Ultimately they always have a higher authority to answers to. Venture capital sees us as a blue chip investment, quietly creaming off a healthy percentage from the bottom line, money that should be earnt by an MRCVS. As a young vet I, too, spent many years disillusioned by my professional career and I think this is a common problem working in a stressful profession when you see less skilled individuals working less hard for apparent greater returns in ither lines of work. I ended up setting up my own practice due to circumstances rather than design- it was something I never intended to do as I didn’t think I had the self-confidence to do so, but it has turned out to be the best thing I have done professionally mining depths of commitment that I never knew existed. As with all things in life, the more you put in the more you get out. I am worried for young vets that there is going to be so little opportunity for real leadership and ownership that their disillusionment will be well founded. Corporatisation, consolidation, commoditisation- these are all terms that should send a chill through the heart of the profession and I would encourage the Futures Project to look long and hard at this issue before the RCVS and BVA find themselves as bystanders to a hijacked profession.

  3. John Sheridan
    John Sheridan says:

    Contributors to the ‘Challenge is Clear – the Fight-back Starts Here’ meeting at the RCVS in May this year highlighted a number of the challenges facing veterinary practice including the issues resulting from the gender shift highlighted by Professor Henry. Her plea for the industry to start implementing solutions must not be ignored and in the first place, it is essential that veterinary graduates better understand the link between their ability to practise their chosen profession, their personal income and the financial as well as the professional performance of the veterinary businesses which employs them. The BVA recently set up a working party to take the first tentative steps to develop a strategic approach to the problems facing the independent practice sector as a result of the meeting in May but perhaps VetFutures will be better placed to take the lead. I wish this joint BVA/RCVS initiative every possible success

  4. Alex
    Alex says:

    Well said Bill: ” I am worried for young vets that there is going to be so little opportunity for real leadership and ownership that their disillusionment will be well founded. Corporatisation, consolidation, commoditisation- these are all terms that should send a chill through the heart of the profession…”

    I agree with the concern that there appears to be a rapidly diminishing level of opportunity to become an independent business owner in the veterinary sector. Some of this change has been accelerated by the global banking crisis but I believe the current independent business owners have to be the ones that make decisions that are sustainable for the profession.

    I’m not quite sure how this fits in with the mindset of female vets?

  5. Ronnie S
    Ronnie S says:

    Having worked in businesses from two-man practice to multinational companies (although not in corporate veterinary practice), I’m not convinced that small is necessarily beautiful. Perhaps larger businesses with HR departments, good governance and standard policies (including those on equality & diversity) can offer a better environment for the new generation than old-fashioned practices. In which case, starting from “if we want to avoid a drastic reduction in the number of private practices and a significant increase in corporatisation” may not be valid.

  6. Lindsay Donaldson
    Lindsay Donaldson says:

    I am so pleased to see the vet futures project being launched. It is high time that we address the issues facing our professions future, and this is a really exciting step. However, I am disappointed to see that the comments above have so quickly moved away from the issue of gender imbalance within leaders in our profession, which was the focus of this blog. I recently had a letter published in the Vet Record about women in the veterinary profession. This letter is too large to post here, but I would love interested people to read it, share any further comments and share it with their vet colleagues.

    If you are not a BVA member and want me to email you the content please get in touch. I want to reach as many vets as possible and encourage a continued, solution focused discussion on this topic. This issue is really important and sadly it seems, we cannot just rely on more women moving into the profession to right the gender imbalance in leadership or eliminate the pay gap. The feedback I have received from both female and male vets so far proves this is a conversation vets, especially young female vets, want to have. We must not to shy away from this imbalance, even if practical solutions initially seem elusive.

  7. Katharine
    Katharine says:

    I am a young female vet, nearly 5 years graduated. I am now in the position where I need to start thinking about where my career is going- do I push for partnership in my current practice, do I just continue as I am knowing that I may have children in a couple of years anyway? I am in large animal practice and both the partners have stay at home wives to care for the children and home so how will I cope if I wanted to become a partner? I struggle to juggle my work and personal life as it is an can imagine working and having a family as being a massive commitment. My female friends in the profession are in a similar position- having worked incredibly hard to get into vet school, to get a job, to be accepted and respected as a veterinarian, several of them are now considering other career paths or giving it up to become full-time mums. I am not sure what the answer is but I do worry that our generation were brought up believing we could have a great career and a family but in reality something has to give- and this means we miss out on partnership positions which are then given to out make colleagues!

  8. Helen Tottey
    Helen Tottey says:

    Are we considering Veterinary Nurses in this debate? While it may be sexist to assume that the majority of VN’s are female I think it is fairly accurate.
    I am an RVN and I set up and ran my own practice from 2007 to 2013, recruiting and employing my vet. So, what about VN’s as business leaders or owners? There are currently 18 VN JVP with V4P & Companion Care. I sold my practice to a vet and nurse partnership (not married to each other!) and I know of another vet and nurse partnership in the area as well as another nurse partner who contacted me after I raised this question at the LVS debate.
    While these are not huge numbers in comparison, it has not been very long that anyone other than a veterinary surgeon could own a practice so maybe the future is more VN’s; and therefore, more females in ownership – on their own or as a partner.
    It would be great to know just how many nurse partners are out there, as although at the moment we may be “an exception to the rule” I think the future could look very different.

  9. Jo
    Jo says:

    I couldn’t agree more with both Lindsay and Katharine!
    As vets we are all under pressure, that’s the nature of the job to a certain extent. I do feel though that there is an extra level of pressure on female vets. Inevitably, colleagues (from either sex) whether they are prepared to admit it or not, will judge a female vet’s “commitment” to the profession based on one key feature… whether they have aspirations to start a family.
    As a practice owner myself I do appreciate that “pregnancy” may be perceived as a staffing/health and safety logistical nightmare for many small businesses but I do feel that an individual female vet’s reputation for being hard-working, committed and driven should not be measured by whether she chooses to pursue motherhood or not. Female vets contemplating motherhood may choose to continue to work or take a well-earned career break. Either way, the decision to try and succeed at life’s other joys and challenges, should not negate their existing – or inhibit their future – good standing within the profession. I for one worked extremely hard to establish my career and now my business too. I am a no less dedicated vet than the next simply because I have announced my desire to procreate!
    A parallel but relevant issue to the subject of females in practice is mental and physical health within the profession as a whole. I know others may disagree, but it is not easy to eat well, drink enough water and keep a healthy work-life balance as a vet . I have little doubt that my own (as yet unsuccessful) efforts to start a family are shared by many of my female colleagues. Over the years I have encountered numerous vets who have struggled to actually become pregnant, have lost multiple babies whilst working in busy practices or like me have been unable to conceive in the first place. If this was one of our patients we’d no doubt have to consider differentials like poor nutrition and stress and yet we often push ourselves at the expense of our own health. This imbalance is certainly not the kind of example I want to be setting for any future family I have but is really a dilemma for many, particularly female vets!

    I think it’d be really helpful if vet schools supported options for female vets in general but especially in leadership roles. I also strongly believe that vet schools should incorporate modules teaching “life skills” and some tools like Mindfulness and the importance of looking after yourself. I think if we all spent half as much time learning about these things as we do on profession CPD we’d all be better vets and if we choose, better parents!!

  10. Mark H
    Mark H says:

    A key point in helping all future graduates is to incorporate proper small business training into the veterinary (and vet nurse!) training. Clinically speaking, we certainly know our stuff, but just as a new op or new treatment may make us uncomfortable, a small business probably takes us so far out of many of our comfort zones it’s not even funny.

    A survey in 2012 by the Institute of Leadership and Management discussed that 93% of small businesses in the UK felt poor management affected their business. At the same time, only 18% expected their managers to have management training!

    Put in another light, that’s like 18% of vet practices expecting vets to have a degree, and then complaining that 93% of vets aren’t very good!

    It’s no longer good enough to ‘just muddle along’. You don’t need to rush out to get an MBA, but at least do some basic level courses on the strategies and tactics of running a team. We need to support and help our fellow colleagues, with a view towards supporting the long term health of our profession – vets and nurses both!

  11. Natalie Steen
    Natalie Steen says:

    I’ve experienced discrimination based on gender (specifically, a job offer was retracted when I told them I was pregnant). Should I have complained? Yes. Did I? No. Female employees don’t want to be seen as a burden or ‘trouble-makers’ for wanting to pursue a family life any more so than men do but in small-medium business environment we are intelligent enough to know we will be. Is the argument that there is a problem with the direction the profession is headed not based on the assumption that young vets don’t want to work in a large, corporate vet practice?

  12. Stuart McArthur B Vet Med MRCVS
    Stuart McArthur B Vet Med MRCVS says:

    It is very exciting and truly great news that we wish equality in both governance/leadership and also in practice ownership and management. Clearly, we will all be able to identify different factors lying behind our transition from male leadership to equality of leadership. By this I mean the point that our leadership and governance make up truly reflects the sex structure of our profession.

    The main topic of this blog thread focuses upon sex ratios at business ownership level. However , male dominance of our UK profession appears to have been the case at both Association-Society level, regulatory level, as well as business level from at least the mid ‘80s. For example if we randomly looked at 2005, what really was the ratio of Men:Women within BSAVA Board/committee, within BVA committee and within RCVS council? In comparison if we also look today at how balanced these groupings are with their sex ratios and also make a comparison with the overall sex structure of our profession (Vets +/- nurses) – do we see an adequate change in where our governance now sits?

    Historically our profession has been small and closed – it was also heavily networked with other male dominated bodies such as our Pharma and regulators. Additionally, over the past 3 decades, we (the wider profession) have not appeared very welcoming to those that “think differently” (we may have even excluded different thinkers or labelled them). Put this all together and the result may have been that we didn’t inculcate wider wisdom into our then stable but male managed culture. Whilst we have now ALL noticed we have gender discrepancies – maybe this is merely a refection of our past professions cultural make up and the legacy of a reluctance of male governance to allow change.

    I have concerns that we started our transition from largely male owned practices to corporates during the period of male dominated governance, and we did this faster than we opened succession to female colleagues. Business leadership therefore leap-frogging the ladies. Perhaps those gentlemen owning the practices and within our Associations and Societies left it a little late to allow the ladies in to help them pick up the pieces of independent practice structure?

    Independent practices ( especially as partnerships between vets and/or nurses) are possibly a dying business model now anyway – maybe because of how difficult it is for passionate clinical teams to cope with running a profitable happy team of vets, nurses, receptionists and admin staff as a profitable, happy stress free concern. Knowledge of legal and professional responsibilities perfuses our profession at all levels and practice management became very complicated, stressful and hard work. Now we are reaping the consequences.

    Given the title of this website we are all in a great position to make a difference to the future of our profession. I propose that allowing far more people with good ideas into the fold of leadership and governance will make a much happier and productive profession. A move from closed to open governance and leadership will make a happier and more balanced profession. What there is left to own will be easier shared with our ladies.

    It is a great thing that we are now ready for significant changes that will almost certainly result in disproportionate increases in the professions happiness and will also favour balanced leadership in governance as well as businesses. Lets let our Ladies lead the way …..

  13. JGWray
    JGWray says:

    From a discussion on another social media site I wrote:
    “..OK, so whither the future of women, or at least the subset who are mothers, in the profession?

    The BVA and RCVS have opened up an opportunity to debate this…..Where’s the thinking about how to get to what you want and plan and action to take you there?

    There are role models in this profession who can be consulted. The concerns I have seen written here are not new. In truth, opportunities for women have expanded, not least because the context of employment, with JV and franchise opportunities which are newish, not brand new but weren’t available to the role models I know and respect. I’m minded to believe, actually, things are better than ever for those who want whatever they want ( if they know it).

    We had our thirty year reunion in 2013. Drawing in the women who were there, so many of them content and successful professionals and mothers, or mothers and professionals, however they see themselves could provide a more balanced, experienced view of a career in the profession. But then, perhaps you think these women are just dinosaurs….”

    If we accept Professor Henry’s thesis then we are overlooking those women who are and have been leaders. I can supply some names and I would hope other contributors could as well.

  14. Sally
    Sally says:

    I fear Stuart has put his finger on one of the main root causes – a proportion of the established male ‘management’ hierarchy has already dismissed women as unsuitable to succeed their positions in business leadership. For myself, I am disinclined to spend mcuh energy or money pursuing membership of a club that (in my experience) has poor management and leadership skills and no interest in acquiring those skills, or asisting or enabling others to do so in order to help grow the business. I am aware that there are practice owners who have very good management and leadership skills – but so far I have failed miserably to be employed by one. Having discovered the enormous cost of buying in to the present club, I am increasingly persuaded that my energies will be better spent investing in my health and wellbeing rather than partnership.

  15. Stuart McArthur B Vet Med MRCVS
    Stuart McArthur B Vet Med MRCVS says:

    Very good Sally!

    The only sensible thing any of us can do is to look after our own health and wellbeing – You are definitely in the right place, doing the right thing and thinking sustainably, at the right time. This means you are likely to be happy for some time if you can stay focused on that every day for some time!

    Don’t worry if the old boys of the past neglected the girls and allowed power to leapfrog the ladies. That was the past. The great news is that this is the time for all forward thinking organisations to give significant power to our visionary women – and different thinkers and also other previously under represented groups.

    Any corporate that gives appropriate leadership to women and other fresh people with progressive imagination NOW will develop a great culture and strong occupational health support structure, a happy stable culture that can grow strong, nurture employees, who flourish and enjoy their working days…. Corporates that fail to do that will probably have the same old frustration based unhappy wellbeing issues that we have known so well for so long .. …

    Evolution and success favour those best adapted to the present moment who have ideas of the time that can be carried forward into the future … that isn’t these old boys – think about being a leading future looking lady in a corporate – I am sure they need people like you now and in the future.

    Opportunities for women are likely to develop rapidly – since we can see that we have a dominant under represented female membership of both nurses and vets. Perhaps it is now gentlemen who will lose their power-base in proportion to their true presence in the profession.

    So this is the time for those who distribute power and leadership roles to think very carefully about what they are doing and to avoid making the mistakes of the past – again !…. 😉

  16. Kate
    Kate says:

    I left practice as I was ‘disillusioned with my future career trajectory’. I was a partner along with five men, in a mixed practice. I did 100% farm work and worked my way through more than a decade of cycles of the farming year,. I enjoyed the work but wanted to reduce my hours to pursue other non-veterinary pursuits in parallel with my veterinary career.

    I do think that veterinary business leadership is a job for women, but opportunities need to be available that suit an upcoming generation of both women, and men, that have inbuilt capability to allow for personal and professional development.

  17. Heather
    Heather says:

    There is no doubt, whatever everyone’s opinion of them, that the corporates have resulted in a massive shift within small animal practice. I am personally inclined to think there are certainly some upsides to their increasing involvement in the market, particularly for employees as opposed to practice owners, and particularly for female employees who want to mix family life with work. However, the prevalence of corporates is not replicated in mixed and especially in equine practice and is not likely to be in the near future. The environment is one of more traditional succession from a retiring colleague, or perhaps with one or two other brave souls, setting up on one’s own. Both these situations require ‘right time, right place’ and a significant financial investment, which those getting by on an assistant’s salary may find difficult to pull together. I personally feel there shouldn’t be an argument over whether women are suitable to run a business – surely that comes down to the individual, rather than gender – rather we must ensure that opportunities for anyone who has those aspirations, regardless of gender or background, are available. Despite having ambition and a strong work ethic, I struggle to see how I would be able to reach the position of being able to own a stake in a business without unacceptable personal sacrifice. I have heard criticism of younger members of the profession along the lines of ‘they just want to work less hours, but still expect the same perks’ – well firstly, who could blame them for wanting to improve on the woeful work/life balance which is often still a feature of the veterinary profession but more importantly, there are still ambitious and entrepreneurial young graduates out there who are more than willing to work the long hours and deal with the crap that comes with running your own business – they just don’t have the opportunities to enter the sphere. This, due to the inevitable time off required, will be particularly true for women who choose to have children. If partnership can be gained, the lack of business accumen common to many clinicians often seems to result in stress, disillusionment and financial strain. As the forefathers of our profession are retiring, and the demographic has switched so dramatically to being female-dominated, in order to secure its future the profession must act now to make the business-owning environment more attractive to EVERYONE with the ambition to take on a management role.

  18. Elizabeth Ormerod
    Elizabeth Ormerod says:

    I would encourage colleagues to give serious consideration to running their own practices. Its probably easier than you imagine.
    Here is my experience of running a practice with my husband whilst raising a family.
    My husband Edward and I purchased a companion animal practice some 30 years’ ago. Although we worked long hours, especially during the first 7 years’ as there was no shared OOH rota, we found that running our own practice brought unexpected benefits. We raised 3 children and organised our working day around our family, We were also able to plan other activities & hobbies. I was able t conduct study trips abroad into the human-animal bond and developed a number of veterinary community outreach programmes e.g. for schools, nursing homes and prisons. Edward had time off in lieu to play golf, do astronomy and go sailing on the west coast. We took a month off every summer to sail to the Hebrides & recharge the batteries. Prior to having the practice my experience comprised working as a clinician in a veterinary school; managing an inner city charity clinic; being an assistant in mixed and SA practices. On completion of his PhD Edward conducted research in virology. We also both have extensive experience as SA locums. Running the practice has been the most rewarding period of our work, personally & financially. Having one’s own practice is empowering and there is great freedom in being able plan work to suit oneself and one’s family. We had our first child when I was working P/T in SA practice – and found this much more difficult. We had never planned to own a practice, but then we realised it could be a good lifestyle choice and it would provide research opportunities.


Leave a comment

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *