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.
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.
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