In this VETgirl blog, we discuss why it’s so important that everyone in veterinary medicine Lean In – regardless if you’re male or female. Is there a lack of women in leadership in veterinary medicine? (Please see the article previously published here in Veterinary Team Brief).

While I don’t admit to reading a lot of self-help books, the book Lean In should top your list this summer. In this book, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, talks about the lack of women in leadership positions throughout the world. Sheryl Sandberg points out the psychological and societal differences among genders, which have likely resulted in this concerning trend.

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

First, is there a true lack of women in leadership? In Corporate level jobs, only 15-16% are women; these numbers haven’t moved since 2002.1 Of married senior managers, 2/3 of the men had children; only 1/3 of the married women had children.1

What about veterinary medicine? Do we see this trend of lack of women in leadership positions in academia, industry and in clinic ownership? When evaluating our own field, are deanship, department chair, section head positions being occupied primarily by men? (Yes.)

Most recently, Dr. Karen Bradley, who was seeking a second term on AVMA’s House Advisory Committee, lost… resulting in an all-male member panel. In a field dominated by women (with over 52,500 female veterinarians are compared to 44,200 male veterinarians at the end of 2012),2 the “scarcity of women in senior leadership positions at AVMA”2 is appalling.

So why is this happening? I had the opportunity to interview two female deans, Dr. Sheila Allen (University of Georgia) and Dr. Joan Hendricks (University of Pennsylvania) on this key topic. Both Dean Allen and Hendricks were familiar with Lean In, and agreed with many of the societal factors that contribute to the lack of women in leadership.

Dean Allen believes that women are hesitant to accept leadership responsibilities for multiple reasons, hence resulting in exceedingly few female applications for academic or leadership positions. The reasons?

  • Concerns about distracting them from family time
  • Lack of self-confidence
  • Lack of mentoring
  • Lack of conviction and self confidence to pursue leadership opportunities

In Lean In, Sandberg believes that women must recognize two significant societal factors that prevent women from even reaching for a leadership role.

First, women devalue themselves.
Studies show that women often devalue themselves and systematically underestimate their own abilities. For example, when estimating their GPA, men tend to overestimate their GPA slightly high while women tend to underestimate theirs.1 When it comes to negotiating a first salary upon graduating, 57% of men negotiated for their first salary, as compared to only 7% of women.1

If we devalue ourselves and don’t see our worth, we’re not able to advocate for ourselves, our profession, our career, and our success…further contributing towards our stereotype of a “pink collar” profession. As a result of us devaluing ourselves, we shy away from or avoid leadership positions altogether.

Second, women attribute their success to everyone but themselves.
It wasn’t until I read Lean In that I realized that I deface myself by saying “I’m not that smart, but I worked really hard to get to where I am” or “I was really blessed.” Men attribute their success to themselves, while women attribute their success to other outside factors. Women have a tendency to state “someone helped me,” “I got lucky” or – like I did – “I worked really hard to get here” as compared to men. Ladies, you got there because you’re awesome. If you fail to realize this, you’ll fail to recognize your strengths as a leader.

In Lean In,1 Sheryl Sandberg lays out three key points of how to succeed as a female leader.

  • Sit at the table.
  • Make your partner a real partner.
  • Don’t leave before you leave.

Sit at the table
No one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side, not at the table. Often, women are hesitant to sit directly in the center of things, choosing a more “wallflower” side seat…throwing them in the shadow. Believe in yourself, own your own success, and sit at the table.

Make your partner a real partner
Despite the improvements in equality, women still do twice the amount of housework and 3X the amount of childcare compared to men.1 When you’re working a 60 hour job as an associate veterinarian, only to come home to primarily manage the household and child care, it puts more strain and stress on the relationship.

Dean Hendricks couldn’t agree more. “Having an equitable partner is imperative… pick the right partner. Don’t pick the wrong one!” Having a partner who is willing to child-rear and take on more household responsibility – who can contribute equally to the shared household – is imperative to allow women to succeed in leadership roles.

Don’t leave before you leave
Do you plan your life out years in advance like me? Take for example, child planning. A woman thinks about having a child (e.g., how am I going to fit this in to everything I’m doing?) a few years in advance. She then stops looking for a promotion, stops taking on new projects, and inadvertently starts leaning back. This is leaving before you leave. Keep your foot on the gas pedal until you are truly ready to leave. In general, women think about things too early (e.g., planning 1-5 year in advance). Don’t make decisions too far in advance and roll with the punches, or you miss out on opportunities to succeed.

“You can be successful and balance both your professional life and family life,” says Dean Allen. Her tips for future generations of women who want to lead or become small business owners? Follow Sandberg’s suggestions of sitting at the table and leaning in when opportunities arise (e.g., don’t lean out). Why? Because women – especially early in their careers – are reluctant to take on additional responsibilities (whether it’s due to fear of failure, fear of distractions of family life, etc.). However, when we step forward, there’s more opportunity for successful. This often can lead to a happier personal life (e.g., your family and partner benefits when you are successful)!

On the contrary, young women who hesitate to take on a leadership role often eventually regret it later (e.g., they chose to move to part-time, elected not to become a small business owner, stayed in a more stagnant role as an associate-for-life, etc.). This can cause resentment and bitterness towards colleagues later on, particularly when these colleagues succeed and advance ahead as partners or business owners. Seeing their success, better life style, and financial gain can be difficult when you work equally as hard, but chose not to take on that added responsibility of partnership (and hence, potential success).

Lastly, we cannot continue the negative association of veterinary medicine becoming a “pink-collar” profession where we just “take care of pets” as part of a service profession. In the words of Dean Hendricks, “we are a science profession, advancing the human science profession also.” We must] push to identify our profession as human health, one health, public health. This is crucial for our profession, and women must be a part of it.”

So, where do we go? First, we have to work to break down societal factors such as this one: While success and likeability are positively correlated for men, they are negatively correlated for women. Second, believe in yourself and your profession. Don’t accept a lower salary. Negotiate like a man. Advocate aggressively for yourself. Mentor young women to take on leadership roles. Create a support group. Find a mentee. Be fierce when it comes to promoting women in leadership. Take on a leadership role; after all, if you support women in leadership, you have to walk the walk.

Women have to keep pushing themselves due to the ongoing battle. The battle of equality is not won, and is in a fragile state right now. We can’t sit back and undo what many have worked so hard to achieve for us. As Sandberg says, “We stand on the shoulders of the women who came before us, women who had to fight for the rights that we now take for granted.”

Regardless of which sex you are, we can all learn to balance success and leadership together, as it can result in both a fulfilling and successful personal life and career.


  1. Sandberg S. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Knofp, New York, 2013.
  2. Burns K, Larkin M. The gender gap. AVMA 2013.
  3. Tremayne J. Women in veterinary medicine. Veterinary Practice News 2010.

  1. “While success and likeability are positively correlated for men, they are negatively correlated for women… Don’t accept a lower salary. Negotiate like a man”

    Consider the interplay of these, though. Women might be less successful in negotiation because what might be seen respectably as “driving a hard bargain” as a man is being “pushy” or overreaching if a woman does it.

  2. I personally think that this is very important for us as women to read. I myself tend to undervalue my worth while working vet meds since I have only been working in it for such a short amount of time. But while working two jobs and going to school part time I should not be undervaluing myself I should be supporting myself and giving myself encouragement to be able to do everything that I am able to do. Being able to read this article and see that I am not the only one who feels like I am not doing enough is huge and I feel like I am part of a group who values me as an employee and a collogue.

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