"Where are the female leaders in animal health?"
That was the headline that confronted readers of an online business journal recently.
While the article focused on veterinary pharmaceutical firms rather than the vet profession, it seems reasonable to speculate the writer may have opted for a different line had she visited Vets Now during her research.
The UK's biggest provider of emergency care for pets, Vets Now has female leaders throughout the business.
"We rarely shout about this but looking at the gender gap statistics across the veterinary profession and the wider business world it's something we should be proud of," said Fiona Dewar, who is joint managing director of the Dunfermline-based business.
Highest proportion on record
Across the UK, just 21% of senior roles are currently held by women — down from 22% in 2015.
More than a third, 36%, of British businesses have no women in senior management, which is the highest proportion on record.
This has seen the UK plummet to 18th place in a world gender equality league table, behind the likes of Rwanda, the Philippines and Slovenia.
Indeed, the situation is so desperate mainstream political parties have resorted to positive discrimination to address the imbalance — even though they have been instrumental in the numerous high-profile campaigns to close the gender gap.
Read more: Distinguished vet reveals what sets Vets Now apart from the rest
But things are even more acute in the veterinary sector.
According to agro-business intelligence firm Animal Pharm, a paltry 15% of the current top executives at the 10 largest veterinary drug manufacturers are female.
In the profession itself, it’s estimated around a quarter of leadership roles are held by women.
This is despite females accounting for almost 60% of practising vets and 80% of veterinary degree undergraduates.
At Vets Now, however, the picture is very different.
There are female leaders in both senior clinical and non-clinical roles — and plenty of them.
The business is led by joint managing director Fiona — who shares her title with Mark Ross — and there are also six other women on the nine-strong operations board in Amanda Boag (clinical), Patricia Colville (business development), Lisa Robb (marketing), Johanna Wallace (finance), Kirsten McLeod (hospitals) and Sam Prentice (people).
The senior management team is also dominated by females while all nine of the company’s district managers are women as are five of the nine district vets and five of the seven customer managers.
A large proportion of the business’s 53 accident and emergency clinics and three emergency and specialty hospitals are also run by female principal vets and principal nurse managers.
In addition, the vast majority of support functions are led by females.
Traditional female roles
Conversely, many of what were once considered traditional female roles are held by men. For example, several of the company’s senior principal nurse managers are male.
But why has Vets Now bucked the trend when it comes to female leaders?
According to Fiona, whose background is in human resources, it’s simply that people are seen as people and those who want to make a difference are afforded the opportunity to progress — regardless of their gender.
Read more: At the Cutting Edge: Aoife tells how Vets Now provides perfect launchpad for career
“Our recruitment strategy is simple,” she said. “We recruit the best people for the job. It’s purely down to ability and, just as importantly, their potential to fit in with our culture and ethos.
"We actively target vets and vet nurses — men and women — who aspire to be high achievers and we assure them there is no glass ceiling.
“Once they're in the door, we encourage them to take responsibility for their development and to fulfil their potential.
“And we will always be flexible in our approach to supporting those with external responsibilities or commitments.”
The issue of gender imbalance in the veterinary profession is almost as old as the profession itself.
Numbers of women vets only began to rise in the 1920s, and by 1960 they still accounted for less than 5% of the profession.
Today the split is 60/40 in favour of females.
However, there remains a far smaller proportion at senior level.
Amanda Boag, clinical director at Vets Now and an RCVS council member, said “There are many and varying reasons why women are less likely to end up in leadership positions although these are not unique to the veterinary industry.
“Having said that, the gender gap in veterinary leadership roles is clearly a cause for concern for the profession."
She added: "It is a source of great pride that Vets Now is bucking this trend and supporting women.
“Traditionally, women have been less likely to put themselves forward for leadership positions due to a lack of confidence. They worry they might not be good enough.
“So as well as ensuring our roles are flexible, we've also worked hard to give our people the confidence to develop.
“A lot of that comes down to the learning culture at Vets Now. It encourages people to learn from their mistakes and to take confidence from that.”
To foster this culture, Vets Now has established an online forum for clinical staff to discuss cases, positive and negative experiences, ethical dilemmas, and valuable research they have come across.
One of the debates on this widely-used platform — started by head of veterinary standards Laura Playforth — centred on whether women are less prepared to take on veterinary leadership roles.
It was prompted by concerns raised by Professor Colette Henry, of the Dundalk Institute of Technology, and came in the wake of a survey which suggested many female vets are disillusioned with their future career trajectory.
Read more: All creatures great and small: How Vets Now has helped vet Rachel reach her potential
Laura, a full-time working mum who has worked her way up the career ladder from emergency vet to district vet to working in a leadership role alongside Amanda Boag, said: “I think, on average, women aren't as good at selling themselves or appearing as confident as men.
“But times are changing as our company shows.
“I feel enormously grateful to work for a business which has always supported me in my development and to have had line managers who believed in me more than I believed in myself.
“We have some amazing female role models within the company, both with and without families of their own. It also helps that we have more opportunities for career development for everyone — men and women — than most other businesses within the profession.”
Aoife O'Sullivan, head of Vets Now’s Edge induction programmes, is confident increasing numbers of female veterinary leaders will emerge over the next decade.
She said: “When I graduated in Dublin in 2001 our year was still male dominated but, by then, many other universities had proportionately more women.
“It means that, as far as numbers are concerned, my generation is the first that’s had a genuinely equal chance to assume leadership roles.
“Many people wait until later in their career to take on those roles so my hope is we will see a surge in female leaders in the next five to 10 years.”
But she added: “There’s no doubt Vets Now has been ahead of the curve on this issue.
"I'm proud to be part of a business that has so many strong female role models at all levels.”
Last week the Women and Equalities Committee at Westminster sparked controversy when it suggested that political parties should be fined if they don't ensure at least 45% of their candidates are women.
It made the call after citing evidence that with less than a third of women MPs, Britain ranks a lowly 48th in global rankings.
If ever a similar league table is drawn up for the veterinary profession, it's easy to predict which position Vets Now will occupy.
If you’d like to find out more about the career opportunities at Vets Now visit our careers site or call a member of our recruitment team on 01383 807 547.