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100 years on, we must improve diversity in the veterinary profession

Daniella Dos Santos, President, British Veterinary Association | British Veterinary Association

3 min read Partner content

We want to work with others to breakdown the systemic barriers to STEM subjects and the professions faced by many young people, says BVA President, Daniella Dos Santos. 

‘If you’re going to have anything to do with the running of […] your profession, you’ve got to know something of the history.’ These words were said by the peerless Mary Brancker (1914 – 2010) who, in 1967, broke a huge glass ceiling by being elected as the first ever female President of the British Veterinary Association (BVA).

Mary’s words ring especially true today, both for the veterinary profession and for me personally.

One hundred years ago, on 23 December 1919, Parliament passed an Act that allowed women to enter the veterinary, legal and chartered accountancy professions and the civil service for the first time, deeming that ‘a person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage in the exercise of any public function’. It also allowed universities to award women degrees.

Almost exactly three years later, on 21 December 1922, Aleen Cust became the first woman to be conferred a diploma by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS), heralding the start of a new era of equal rights and opportunities for both men and women within the profession. Today, women now make up around 60% of vets on the Register and around 80% of vet students.

I had the privilege of being able to hold a very real and tangible piece of this decisive and far-reaching history earlier this month, when the BVA Officer team had the opportunity to visit the Parliamentary Archives to personally view the original copy of the Act.

Seeing the Act that made this possible in person was an emotional experience for me, and I know that my fellow officers were also delighted to be given access to a document that has had such a tremendous impact on our profession.

I’m the fifth female president of BVA in our 137-year history. It is thanks to those women who went before me that I’ve been able to join this amazing profession and do a job I love. Their determination paved the way for change that gave me, and the other four female BVA presidents before me, the opportunity to represent our fantastic colleagues.

But we still have more to do. Today, even as BVA calls on the profession to celebrate inspiring women vets of Christmas past, present and future (#StandingOnHerShoulders), it’s important to remember that the veterinary profession still has a way to go in widening access and promoting equality, diversity and inclusion.

Research by BVA and the University of Exeter found that women vets still face discrimination at work, particularly from managers who think discrimination is no longer a problem. Vets, like many other professions, experience the gender pay gap. And, women are under-represented in senior positions in veterinary workplaces. These are societal issues that need to be addressed innovatively, and we want to learn from progress in other sectors.  

At the same time, our profession doesn’t look like the society it serves – people from BAME and working-class backgrounds are hugely under-represented amongst our colleagues. We want to work with others to breakdown the systemic barriers to STEM subjects and the professions faced by many young people. My own background is as the child of a working-class immigrant family so I’m passionate about this area of work.  

The good news is that there’s a huge amount of support for what we’re doing within the veterinary profession to put a spotlight on these issues. And we’re up for the challenge. As we cast an eye on history, we must also remember that history has its eyes on us.

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