Take veterinarians. In the 1960s, women comprised 10% of the students studying veterinary science. Now 79% of the student population is female-and that means the practice of the profession is shifting according to their preferences. Fifty years ago, most veterinarians looked after large animals that were destined for our plates. Now, 60% of practitioners work only with "companion animals," that is, pets.
Although it's not only women who are driving this shift, Murray Jelinski and his colleagues at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine discovered that the more common desire among female vets to cure animals, not just make sure they make it to the abattoir, plays a significant role. The researchers surveyed recent veterinary graduates and discovered that three characteristics predict who will pursue a food-animal practice: being male, growing up in a rural setting, and having lots of farm experience before going off to college. Interestingly, the researchers conclude that even if colleges know rural men are more likely to go into food-animal practices, cherry-picking them as vet students is discriminatory and contravenes the Canadian Human Rights Act.
One obvious reason why men are becoming scarce in many professions is the exponential increase of women on university campuses all over the industrialized world, not to mention women's stronger academic records, on average. Admission to veterinary college is highly competitive. Many of the best students who apply are women with urban backgrounds. If, as graduates, they choose different career paths than the men who preceded them, who can blame them? One benefit of the profession is that, like family doctors and pharmacists, veterinarians can often control their own hours and maintain their autonomy-both highly ranked values among educated women, according to research in both the U.S. and the United Kingdom. "A vet can own a practice, raise a family and work three or four days a week," says Darren Osborne, the director of economic research at the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association. He believes that the presence of more women in the profession will have a trickle-down effect-improving work conditions for men because the women insist on more humane schedules. "When we ask, the men say they want to work fewer hours. The difference is the women figure out a way to do it."
I asked Andrew Stairs, an agronomist whose family owns Stairsholme Farm in Hemmingford, Quebec (and who supplies the meat I eat), whether this shift has ever left him in the lurch. Stairs has never had trouble finding a veterinarian-male or female-to care for his livestock, but sees a "looming shortage" of large-animal veterinarians for a different reason. "They're just not that well paid. You can earn hundreds neutering a cat-which takes a few minutes-and much, much less to treat a cow. Now, treating a sick cow is very rewarding, but it's heavy, cold and it's filthy. Women aren't stupid. If they can get a bigger bang for their effort with small animals, why not do it?"
Stairs is on to something. Sexism in some trades may be less of a turnoff to women than the fact that the work involved is dirty, dangerous or isolating. A quick look at Canadian and American labour statistics suggests as much. There are four times as many male heavy-machine operators as female, for example. Fire-fighters and steelworkers? Just over 3% are female, and even smaller fractions of women work in highly lethal trades such as roofing, mining or fishing. But professions like mine-clinical psychology and writing-where you can stay indoors, traverse broad swaths of terrain in a single Internet search, and use words as tools? Now you're talking.
In the corporate setting, most female professionals also spend their workdays communicating, and the best of them intuitively use a lot of "mind reading"-what psychologists call cognitive empathy-while navigating the complex shoals of corporate life. Cognitive empathy is the ability to suss out what others might be thinking or feeling (without being explicitly told). It's an area where women, on average, show a mild to moderate advantage over men, according to a number of studies published over the last decade.