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Addressing the issues of gender disparity

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01 July 2017, at 1:00am

THE MERCURY COLUMN in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around

THERE ARE SEVERAL IMMUTABLE RULES of existence: the sun rising and setting each day, the irresistible force of gravity, the irresistible attraction of a curry at closing time… the list is endless and I think I may have discovered another one. Have you noticed how, when given the opportunity, women of all ages can demonstrate that they know the lyrics to every song ever written? The recent Ariana Grande benefit concert in Manchester, just a few days after the atrocity of the bomb blast at her earlier concert, provided visible proof of this discovery. The audience was mostly young or very young, predominantly and understandably female and, in a way that might have shamed many of my older generation, fixated on coming together in an outpouring of positivity and harmony. This member of an older generation was also shocked that, unlike Live Aid which I watched live, recorded and played back many times, most of the performers at Old Trafford could actually do it without the aid of studio wizardry. The point here is that the myriad camera shots of female faces – some differing by almost 50 years – showed without exception that all the women knew all the words to all the songs. In a straw poll which might not stand up to much rigorous scrutiny, I asked three male friends if they could recite the words to any one song from end to end and I can report that, of this massive sample, zero per cent of our quartet managed the task. Every male knows that women are different and every wise male also knows that the list of differences is impressive and far exceeds the obvious. Isn’t it strange then, in this enlightened age, that we still do not have gender parity across a wide range of social and economic parameters? Many young graduates starting out on their veterinary careers this autumn will find that, if they’re female, they may be offered a lower salary than a male and we still don’t have parity in the representation of women in senior positions across the thousands of veterinary practices in the UK. This is despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of veterinary graduates over the last 20 years have been women. This isn’t a specifically UK-based phenomenon. Currently, women make up the majority of those enrolled in university in nearly 100 countries but, despite this observation, there is no groundswell of opinion, no urban rush to “expand the talent pool” based on any industrial rationale for promoting gender parity. Perhaps women’s ascendance in higher education is comparatively new if compared with the centuries of chauvinistic prejudice that favoured male managers, directors and professionals. Even today, in industry, company perceptions have not kept pace with the changing reality of the composition of the talent pool around them. What greater slap in the face for women could there be than a quota system to force companies to elevate the same number of women to their boards as there are men? Some might argue that this observation is now archaic. After all, we have (at least, at the time of writing this) a female Prime Minister, several female judges, we have female airline pilots and entrepreneurs, the most senior officer in the Metropolitan Police is a woman and our monarch, the Queen, has held that position for longer than many of us have been alive. Closer still to home, the current – very capable – president of the BVA is female and the news today announced that a woman will run one of Britain’s major TV channels for the first time so, while things are clearly better, we fool ourselves if we believe we have anything approaching parity. Alex Mahon will be the first woman to lead Channel 4, indeed to lead any major station as neither the BBC nor ITV has ever had a woman chief. There is a sort of obtuse confusion surrounding the lack of parity; most sentient men recognise that they would be unable to be fathers and successful in their careers without the support of a partner and the hidden societal assumption is that behind every successful man there’s a determined woman, but we seem to expect that successful women will also manage to run a home, bring up children and see to the dog. Of course, successful women often have partners too, working away unsung in the background, but that’s rarely mentioned. There are real differences between the genders. Most high-achieving school-leavers are girls, multi-tasking is a celebrated skill for women and an unusual attribute for men (my spell check missed off the “n” at the end of that sentence, clearly recognising the truth of the matter) and there’s a raft of research that shows that women’s problem-solving is usually more considered and less action-dependent than that of most men. There are many very capable and caring men, but few of us would argue against women generally having an innate ability for caring and in building consensus within groups. Maybe we take for granted the most obvious difference in the skill sets between the genders and that is the lack of testosterone in the workplace where women are concerned. During the crash of 2008, someone wiser than I suggested that women would make better workers on the trading floors of financial institutions, lacking as they do the comparable desire to prove their aspirational masculinity and, above all, to win at all costs. As Hugo Rifkind recently wrote in The Times, “…clearly, the male fear of inferiority is at the root of quite a lot of the ugly things young men suddenly and shockingly do”. He was writing about jihadists, but the point is well made. At the height of “the troubles” in Northern Ireland, it was when the women took to the streets in protest that the political tide began to turn and since then we have perhaps allowed our centuries-old prejudice, that somehow men make better leaders, to settle back into place with all the comfort of a familiar old blanket. Looking at the many nations where the actions of their male leaders seem better suited to grace a comic book than the writing of world history, the need for some spring cleaning has been emphatically endorsed by the various electorates around the world, where they are allowed the freedom to do so. We have a dynamic within the veterinary profession that sees a new predominance of smart, achieving, capable young women but, in our pursuit of parity, are we too fixated on making everything equal at the cost of missing the inherent advantages that other industries, if not professions,would see as a tangible asset? Yes, we must have social and economic parity but, maybe as importantly, let’s not ignore and throw away the advantages that this striking dynamic offers us.