Assessing the Gender Pay Gap in Veterinary Medicine
A study that included surveys from more than 2700 veterinarians found a pay discrepancy between men and women, especially for early-career practitioners.
While working toward her bachelor’s degree in nutrition in the late 1990s, Dr. Michelle Moyal, DVM, was aware there was a gender-based wage gap, but she didn’t think it existed between women and men who were medical professionals.
“After all, we all went through the same rigorous training,” she says. “I didn’t realize the severity of that gap, nor did I think it would affect medical professionals, until I graduated from veterinary school [in 2007].”
More than half a century after President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law on June 10, 1963, making pay discrimination illegal in the United States, a difference in earnings between men and women not only persists but is pervasive. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, in 2020 women’s annual earnings were 82.3% of men’s, resulting in an annual wage gap of $10 157.1 These calculations reflect the ratio of earnings for women and men across all types of industries, professions, and jobs,2 including veterinary medicine.3
A recent study that investigated gender-based pay gaps in the veterinary profession was conducted by researchers at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. The results were published March 15, 2021, in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.3 The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) funded the research.
Overall, the Cornell study—which examined practice ownership income, experience, and specialty certification, among other factors—found that the wage gap is more prominent among recent graduates and the top half of earners.3,4 For the top one-quarter of earners, the annual difference is around $100 000, which takes into account total compensation, not just salary, and can include ownership profits. The study did not find as wide a gap among the remaining three-quarters of veterinary doctors.3,4
“It is incredibly difficult to fathom that another doctor makes so much more money not because they have more experience or expertise, but simply because they are a man,” Dr. Moyal says. “That is outrageous and unacceptable.”
Of interest to Dr. Clinton Neill, assistant professor in the Department of Population Medicine and Diagnostic Sciences at Cornell University and senior author of the study, was whether a gender-based disparity in practice ownership contributes to the pay gap. The study found that for those veterinarians who are also owners, the type of ownership—sole proprietorship versus partnership—made a difference: partnerships had a more positive impact on a female veterinary doctor’s earning potential than sole ownership, but for a male veterinary doctor, any form of ownership benefited his income.
“While the data supports this, when we delve deeper and look at 2 identical practice owners—one being female and the other male being the only difference—we find that women still make less,” says Dr. Neill. “I really just want people to stop using this as an excuse to explain away the gender wage gap.”
In fact, the research revealed that specialty certifications made a bigger difference to women’s earning power than ownership did.3,4
Identifying the Root Causes
Pay disparity between men and women can be measured in different ways, depending on the algorithm being used, as the large body of research has shown. Various adjustments to the calculations will result in differing conclusions, but one thing is consistent across many studies on the subject: women are paid less relative to men. Pinpointing the precise reasons for earning inequality is challenging, but in the Cornell study, researchers cited potential factors, including unconscious bias, size of practices, less external financing, and societal expectations.4
Dr. Neill says several factors, such as a veterinarian’s age, experience, number of hours worked, and whether they practiced in an urban, suburban, or rural area, could account for or contribute to the disparity. “Now that we have identified some of the factors that affect the wage gap we can dig deeper,” he says.
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. The so-called “motherhood penalty” also plays a part, says Dr. Neill. Research has shown that after giving birth, women’s pay lags behind pay of similarly educated and experienced men and of women without children.5 Men who become fathers do not suffer a similar penalty.
“I think a large part of this has to do with biased views on women and childbearing—specifically as it relates to age,” says Dr. Neill. “As part of the larger study, but not yet published, we did a focus group with hiring managers for veterinary clinics. We found that they perceived younger women to have a higher probability of having children in the near future and that children under the age of 10 require more parental attention. This had many hiring managers worried about how much time away from work potential new hires would take. Women earlier in their careers are also younger on average, which could be a potential explanation for why men see higher returns to income at earlier stages in their career.”
Dr. Moyal, who is a lecturer and primary care surgeon at Cornell University’s Small Animal Community Practice, recently participated in a course offering from Cornell’s Intergroup Dialogue Project and was introduced to research that enhanced her understanding of gender and social identities. “There is a narrative placed on women—starting in childhood—to focus on relationships and emotions versus men having a focus placed on self and thought,” she says. “This was sadly a revelation. When we grow into our academic and professional lives, if we are outspoken, we are going against that narrative and we are deemed too aggressive. If we want family and careers, we may be missing out on employment opportunities. If we do not want a family, we may be looked down upon as not being feminine enough. Now of course, an individual choice to have a family should never interfere with employment, but it does for women. Now consider how much more difficult this is for women in BIPOC [black, indigenous, and people of color] and LGBTQIA [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual] communities.”
In fact, the gender wage gap is more pronounced for women in these communities, which has been borne out by previous research. Black women are typically paid just 63 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men; Native American women are typically paid just 60 cents; and Latinas, 55 cents.6
“As a woman of color, I learned about the gender wage gap early in my collegiate education,” says Dr. Lisa Greenhill, senior director for institutional research and diversity at the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges. “The gap is substantial for women across the board, and for women of color, the gap is wider. Wage gaps are one of many reasons why women experience poverty at a greater rate than men; it is a reflection of gendered marginalization that has largely been accepted despite many research articles across numerous disciplines.”
The Cumulative Effect
Over the course of a woman’s career, the loss in earnings begins to have a ripple effect on her long-term financial security and the wellbeing of anyone who depends on her income, including children. A woman working full time year-round (across all professions and industries) earned $10 194 less than her male counterpart, on average, in 2018.2 If this wage gap were to remain unchanged and she worked 40 years, she would earn about $407 760 less than a man,2 a sum that would greatly increase when you consider the time value of money and potential for compound growth. This is a significant chunk of change that a woman could use to make mortgage payments, repay student loan debt, provide daycare or educational opportunities for children, or save for retirement.
Though the Cornell study shows that the pay gap narrows after about 25 years, Dr. Neill says that by then, for many women the die is cast. “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,” he says. The early-career difference “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.”
All Things Considered
Dr. Samantha Morello, DVM, DACVS, clinical associate professor of large animal surgery at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, cautions that the small sample size could be skewing the results, particularly in regard to work experience.
More than half of the women surveyed in the Cornell study had fewer than 5 years of experience, and only 20% had greater than 10 years of experience, while nearly half of men surveyed—45%—had more than 10 years of experience. “Fewer than 3000 veterinarians were surveyed, so I don’t think that’s enough of a sample size to let us know whether the women surveyed were at a point in their career to see the greatest returns in their annual income.”
Dr. Morello also says that we don’t know what kinds of choices women might be making in the clinic, which has an impact on those who are receiving production-based compensation (when associates are not paid a salary but are paid on the basis of a percentage of the revenue they produce for the practice). “Women may be making different choices than men,” she says. “They may be taking more time with clients in the exam room, operating on different types of cases, and/or taking more time during their surgeries, they may write more extensive notes into the records. That added value is not time we monetize.”
These different choices may even be evident as part of the ownership differential, says Dr. Morello. “While fewer women may choose to pursue that path, some that do may be less motivated by money than by the desire for autonomy,” she says. “The latter may be part of the observation that, in some cases, ownership doesn’t provide the traditional financial reward for women, but there are other great benefits that shouldn’t be underestimated.”
Mindsets still need to change, Dr. Morello says. Historically, “women have made great strides in the past 6 decades,” but the gender pay gap stubbornly persists. In 1996, when the first “official” Equal Pay Day debuted, American women earned about 74 cents for every dollar that a man earned. Today, it’s 82 cents—a difference of only 8 cents over a 25-year period.7
It’s clear that the reasons are complex and wide-ranging, but pay equity in the veterinary profession requires solutions. “Having wage transparency and negotiating power is particularly valuable for women,” Dr. Morello says.
Given the plethora of research and data available on gender-based wage inequality, the Cornell study probably holds few surprises for female veterinarians. But while the problem is widely understood, the solutions are not. And with progress on closing the gap stalled, solutions must be found.
“I believe legislation will be needed to help all women across many disciplines earn what their male counterparts earn,” says Dr. Moyal. “I realize the Equal Pay Act exists, but clearly something is wrong if men are still earning so much more than women in similar fields, jobs, etc., this many years later. In veterinary medicine, legislation could be combined with regular pay audits.”
Pay audits could be part of a greater initiative to implement accounting and transparency measures in veterinary businesses and practices. “Secrecy allows for these disparate practices to continue,” says Dr. Moyal. “For example, a practice owner/corporation could discuss pay scale and how it compares in female versus male associates during the interview process. While this may sound more cumbersome for the employer as experience/expertise needs to be factored in, that type of transparency allows for a female associate to make the most informed decision about employment and their value in a practice.”
Dr. Jodi A. Korich, DVM, associate dean for education at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, stresses positive messaging in her mentorship of female veterinary students. “I want female veterinary students to hear positive messaging on this to counterbalance the negative statistics that we are frequently exposed to,” she says. “Female veterinarians can start by familiarizing themselves with salary ranges in their discipline and region. It’s also important to understand how compensation packages are structured and where there are opportunities to negotiate within these packages. Identify your clinical and professional strengths and be prepared to articulate how they will benefit your employer. Finally, invest some time in developing your negotiation skills. Keep in mind that women may need to use different negotiation tactics than men. Social conditioning and unconscious bias come into play during negotiations, and trying to use ‘masculine’ negotiation tactics can backfire for women.”
Passing legislation, strengthening a woman’s negotiating skills, and promoting salary transparency are needed, says Dr. Greenhill, but they are not enough. “At the core of any effort there has to be commitment to equality. For years, women have been gaslit into believing that improving negotiating skills can close the gap. I don’t deny that negotiation skills are an essential professional competency, but the reality is that one cannot negotiate their way out of being marginalized and subjected to inequitable compensation. Legislation can help, but decades of legislation designed to eradicate discrimination by race, gender, and other personal dimensions have fallen short. Salary transparency, and more specifically killing the taboo of discussing money and finance, would certainly make employers more accountable to gendered salary differentials. Ultimately though, transparency is about shaming folks to do the right thing, and that is not a long-term effective strategy. In the end, our colleagues must commit to salary equity.”
Making the Commitment
Taking steps to achieve pay equity will pay off for the profession as a whole, says Neill. “By working towards and achieving pay equality we can address the student debt issue, increase access to care for more animals, and ensure that we have happier, healthier animals and humans. And I am talking about pay equality across the board, not just between genders, but between races as well. Research has shown that pay equality and more diverse businesses are more profitable and reduce burnout. There is evidence that pay equality will spur economic growth for the entire industry.”
Dr. Neill plans to collaborate with researchers across multiple disciplines at Cornell to examine unconscious biases that impact how women are paid. “Until equality of pay is reached, there will always be more research needed. I want to ensure that we look at the issue from every possible angle and provide actionable solutions to the problem. This is an all-hands-on-deck issue and I hope that other researchers will build on what my coauthors and I have already started.”
1. Jones J. 5 facts about the state of the gender pay gap. U.S. Department of Labor Blog. blog.dol.gov/2021/03/19/5-facts-about-the-state-of-the-gender-pay-gap. Accessed June 19, 2021.
2. Bleiweis R. Quick facts about the gender wage gap. Center for American Progress. americanprogress.org/issues/women/reports/2020/03/24/482141/quick-facts-gender-wage-gap. Accessed June 20, 2022.
3. Neill CL, Kakpo AT, Mack R. The role of experience, specialty certification, and practice ownership in the gender wage gap for veterinarians in the United States. JAVMA. 2021;258(6):591-600. doi.org/10.2460/javma.258.6.591
4. Cordova MG. Study finds women earn less, advance slower than men as veterinarians. Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. vet.cornell.edu/news/20210315/study-finds-women-earn-less-advance-slower-men-veterinarians. Accessed June 20, 2021.
5. Gould J, Schieder J, Geier K. What is the gender pay gap and is it real? Economic Policy Institute. epi.org/publication/what-is-the-gender-pay-gap-and-is-it-real. Accessed June 22, 2021.
6. Quantifying America’s gender wage gap by race/ethnicity. National Partnership for Women and Families. nationalpartnership.org/our-work/resources/economic-justice/fair-pay/quantifying-americas-gender-wage-gap.pdf. Accessed June 22, 2021.
7. Donner F, Goldberg E. In 25 years, the pay gap has shrunk by just 8 cents. The New York Times. nytimes.com/2021/03/24/us/equal-pay-day-explainer.html. Accessed June 23, 2021.