Earn respect, stand up for your dreams

Women now outnumber men in veterinarian medicine. 

Agriculture has always been a male-dominant world including the field of veterinarian medicine. Peggy Anne Hawkins, DVM, knows too well that the road to become a swine veterinarian is never paved in gold and when you add the missing “Y” chromosome factor the journey contains rougher terrain. 

Graduating from high school in 1975, Hawkins inspired to become a veterinarian. However, her father did not hitch his wagon to her dreams. With a protective nature, he sat his little girl down and explained that girls do not go to college. Needless to say, Hawkins disobeyed her father.

First, as a compromise she attended the Medical Institute of Minnesota to obtain a veterinarian technician degree. Hawkins returned to a small veterinarian practice in her hometown area as a veterinarian technician. Still, the desire to become a veterinarian never fizzled and she was determined to complete her dreams despite the obstacles before her.

Hawkins vividly recalls waking up on Jan. 3, 1987, and saying to herself “I have to marry a man to get a man’s salary to do the things I want to do or I’ve got to get an education that is going to get me a man’s salary to do the things I want to do.”

As a woman on a mission, Hawkins marched to her high school to obtain an application for Iowa State University with the intention to complete a Bachelor of Science degree and eventually a veterinarian degree. She applied without her parents knowing. So, when the letter reached the mailbox and she told her mom that she was accepted her mom replied “wait until your father gets home.” Bravely, meeting her father in the driveway Hawkins explained the letter, her intentions and ensured her father that it would not cost the family a dime.

After completing her undergraduate work at Iowa State University, Hawkins immediately applied for veterinary school but like many of her male counterparts she did not get in the first year. She charged ahead, planned to apply again and entered the Peace Corps. During the time with the Peace Corps, she realized food animal agriculture was her calling and upon her return she was accepted in the College of Veterinary Medicine Science at ISU.

Hawkins never regrets her journey in becoming a large animal veterinarian. Every step, in particular her technical training in production, has served her well. Looking back, her dad did ask her if he ever held her back. She responded “no” and says she would not have traded what happened for anything in the world. Although Hawkins was not the first female swine veterinarian, she was one of a few upon graduating from veterinary school in 1991.

Women veterinarian paving the way

While it is common to see women veterinarians today, it has not always been that way. As Hawkins reveals in the 1970s, it was feared that women will only be veterinarian part-time.  When you look at the statistics, 1987 was the first time the number of women equaled the number of men in veterinary college. Since 1995, 80% of veterinary students are women in the United States and Canada. 

Interestingly, today the roles are reversed. In fact, Hawkins says she was visiting with a committee member whom assists with selecting new veterinary students and they are now recruiting male applicants.

Author Anne Lincoln wrote in “The Shifting Supply of Men and Women to Occupations: Feminization in Veterinary Education” that the shift in gender ratio was related to three things. First, in 1972 a federal amendment outlawed the discrimination of females during the school application process. Soon, the number of women exceeded the number of men who received a Bachelor of Science degree. Although, males would outnumber females in a freshman class, more women would actually finish and be ready to enter graduate programs. Thirdly, Lincoln says males tend to shy away from occupations that appear to be women dominated.

Nevertheless, women have not always pursued the swine veterinarian occupation until recently. In 2015, 22% members of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians are women and three have been president of the organization. Hawkins says visiting with the first few women AASV members, many commented that the organization has always been open to their involvement and willing to lend a hand when needed. More importantly, for the most part, the women recall the acceptance by the swine industry. Still, some had to face a few challenges being the first female veterinarian in a rural community. Often, there was some public concern of women being in the barns with men. In order to overcome, the female veterinarians started inviting the women of the household to the barns during the visits. Getting the women involved in the farming operation calmed the gossip.

On the whole, Hawkins says her male counterparts are supportive, “treat us as equals and help us to learn everything.”

Words of wisdom

Hawkins has several tips to fellow women wanting to enter the field of veterinarian medicine. First, she says “you can do it.” In general, you may have to approach tasks differently than men but at the end of the day you will find a way to do it in your own way. However, Hawkins warns it is still important to do it right.

Speaking to young women, Hawkins says it is important to recognize that there will be time you will be in an uncomfortable situation, especially when it comes to side dialogues. As a female you may be talked to differently, but if you are offended by the discussion do not be afraid to speak up.

There is nothing that says a woman cannot put a restriction on their language and behavior because that is going to get you the respect. As a pioneer in her field, Hawkins says she strives to make it easier for the women who follow her.

Overall, Hawkins advises that gender should never stop you but you should always earn the respect and stand up for your dreams.

“I heard ‘no’ so many times, I would never tell anyone that you cannot be a veterinarian,” says Hawkins. “If you have to the love math and science as much as you love animals then you will be a successful veterinarian.”

She concludes, “It is about the population. It is not about the individual animal but it is about food, feeding people and health and welfare of these animals that serve us. That is what swine medicine is all about.”

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