March 15, 2021 – Women veterinarians make less than their male counterparts, new research from the College of Veterinary Medicine has found – with an annual difference of around $100,000 among the top quarter of earners.
The disparity predominantly affects recent graduates and the top half of earners, according to the research, the first overarching study of the wage gap in the veterinary industry.
“Veterinarians can take many paths in their careers, all of which affect earning potential,” said the paper’s senior author, Dr. Clinton Neill, assistant professor in the Department of Population Medicine and Diagnostic Sciences. “Similar to what’s been found in the human medicine world, we found the wage gap was more prominent in the beginning of their careers, but dissipates after about 25 years. This has large implications for lifetime wealth and earnings, as men will consequently have a larger sum of wealth at the end of their careers because of this.”
Neill and his collaborators examined practice ownership income, experience and specialty certification. The paper, which was published March 15 in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, is also the first peer-reviewed publication for the newly-established Center for Veterinary Business and Economics.
The reasons for the earning inequality are challenging to identify. The researchers cite unconscious bias, size of practices, less external financing and societal expectations as potential factors.
“The bias that affects women starts from childhood,” said Michelle Moyal, D.V.M. ’07, lecturer and primary care surgeon at Cornell’s Small Animal Community Practice. Both Moyal and associate dean for education Jodi Korich, D.V.M. ’97, said they became aware of the disparity only after graduating from veterinary school.
The industrywide effects of this bias can be linked to some common misconceptions, Neill said.
“When people discuss the gender wage gap, there is a general misunderstanding about the role of practice ownership,” he said. “People mistakenly think that there’s not a gender wage gap but rather an ownership gap between the genders.”
While they did find an ownership disparity, this didn’t account for the wage gap as a whole.
Their analysis showed that type of ownership also plays a role. Partnerships, for example, are more beneficial for women’s income earning potential than sole proprietorships, while any form of ownership benefits men’s incomes. When it comes to the number of years worked, the study found that men move into higher income brackets at lower levels of experience than women.
“Obviously, the further you get into your career, the more money you’re likely to make, but men make bigger jumps with every year of experience compared to women,” Neill said.
At Cornell, enrollment in the doctor of veterinary medicine program saw a roughly even gender split for the first time in 1979, and women have increasingly outnumbered men since 1980. This was due in part to national efforts like the Higher Education Act of 1973. In 2020, women comprised 80% of the incoming veterinary class. The veterinary profession as a whole shifted to reflect the student body trends in 2009, and at the end of 2019 hovered just above 60%.
While the paper aimed to lay the groundwork for more solution-oriented studies, the researchers suggested that measures such as industrywide income transparency could help close the gap.
“The lack of salary transparency in most workplaces in the United States has created an environment where inequity remains hidden, allowing it to persist,” Korich said.
In the future, the researchers plan on studying similar disparities across ethnicities – veterinary medicine is among the whitest professions in the country – and drilling deeper into issues such as the behavioral and societal expectations women face versus men.
“It starts right in our homes and families: How is workload divided in our homes? How are the career goals balanced within a partnership?” Korich said. “In the workplace, I think there are unconscious behavioral expectations that often penalize women for advocating for themselves, whether it be negotiating for one’s salary or putting oneself in a position to advance to the next level within an organization. These behaviors persist in many cases because they are unconscious. I think part of the solution is to raise awareness within ourselves and in our workplaces.”
Moyal has also seen similar societal norms at play when it comes to interacting with clients. “One example that comes to mind is the time a human medical professional questioned a treatment plan for his animal and wouldn’t agree to anything until he spoke with the male practice owner,” Moyal says. “These ‘silent’ factors also lead to the increased stress and burnout that many female veterinary professionals face daily.”
Neill and his co-authors intend to collaborate with researchers across multiple disciplines at Cornell to examine such unconscious biases. “Our hope is that this will spearhead the next set of studies on the earnings of underrepresented minorities and continue the momentum of creating pay equality for all those in veterinary medicine,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do, and it will help the whole industry flourish.”
Melanie Greaver Cordova is assistant director of communications at the College of Veterinary Medicine.