Girl Power: The Rise of Female Leaders in Veterinary Medicine
The veterinary profession might be primarily comprised of women now, but it hasn’t always been that way. Previous generations of female veterinarians worked hard to be accepted into a male-dominated profession and paved the way for their female successors—whether they knew it or not.
In this episode, we discuss the past, present, and future of the profession with two leaders of the Ohio veterinary community: Dr. Barbara Musolf and Dr. Patricia Haines. They reflect on obstacles they faced and overcame, how much the profession has changed during their careers, and the future of veterinary medicine—all from the perspective of two of OVMA’s first female leaders.
After working in private practice, Dr. Musolf spearheaded Cuyahoga Community College’s veterinary technology program in the mid-’90s. She serves as OVMA President in 2022.
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Mia Cunningham: Welcome to the Fully Vetted podcast. My name is Mia Cunningham, and I’m joined by my colleague Krysten Bennett, and today we have Dr. Barbara Musolf and Patricia Haines to discuss women in veterinary leadership.
Krysten Bennett: Dr. Haines is not only a past president of the OVMA, but also the recipient of the 2021 Ohio Veterinarian of the Year Award. Dr. Musolf is a longtime OVMA board member and is currently serving as president. They are the fourth and seventh female OVMA presidents, respectively.
MC: So, distinguished ladies, welcome to the show. Thank you both for being here. I can imagine that you’re both pretty busy, so we really appreciate you making the time today. Before we get into today’s topic, could you both share a little bit about your background with our listeners and just talk a little bit about your journey in veterinary medicine? Dr. Haines, we’ll start with you.
Patricia Haines: Okay, well, I always grew up around animals. Started into college, decided I wanted to be a veterinarian, so completed undergrad and veterinary school at Ohio State. Met my husband there, who happened to be a farmer, so got introduced to the large animal world. Also, we have always shown dogs, so I’ve been active in that side of it. And throughout my career, I’ve been able to participate with the farm, my dogs, and continue to practice veterinary medicine
MC: Wonderful. And Dr. Musolf?
Barbara Musolf: Like Dr. Haines, I grew up on a farm. I pretty soon came to the conclusion that I wasn’t good enough for Carnegie Hall. So it was either that or my passion was animals, and I decided I wanted to be a veterinarian. I graduated from Ohio State University in 1981, took a job in a mixed practice in Pennsylvania, and I was hired to do horses and small animals. I went to Pennsylvania because I’d never seen a mountain before, and I thought the dogwoods on the mountain were absolutely stunningly beautiful. And so that’s how I ended up there. Stayed about a year, fell off my horse, big crash, came back home, started doing veterinary relief work, and eventually went to Cuyahoga Community College. Started the veterinary technician training program at Cuyahoga Community College. Literally wrote all the courses that first year and taught them all. Retired from there, found out I’m really terrible at retirement and started doing veterinary relief work because deep in my grubby heart, I’m a veterinarian.
KB: Over the past couple of generations, the profession has shifted from being comprised entirely of men to being predominantly female. At what point on that timeline did you begin your veterinary education?
BM: I entered vet school in 1977, and there were, I think, somewhere between 25 and maybe 35 girls in my class. And I remember back then, we had a rather infamous equine professor. His name was Dr. Albert Gobble. And Al Gobble said that we were the first group of women to enter the College of Veterinary Medicine who were not intent on proving that they were as good as the men, that just assumed we were as good as the men, and we went on. And I think that was really true.
There were some things I did not like. I did not like that we only had one sink, one toilet, and no showers in the locker room. That could become an issue when you’re coming back from large animal. You can put garbage bags on the seat of your car if you’re especially grubby.
There was a guy, and this was before Dr. Haines’ time, it was a faculty person who has long passed away at the College of Veterinary Medicine. And he would look the girl applicants in the eye and say, “And exactly why do you want to be in this profession, when all you’re going to do is get married and have children?” That was said. That’s way back now; you’re talking ’60s and ’70s. In those days, we didn’t have to be as good as the guys. We had to be better.
And that should never happen. Just never happen. You know that people have a right to their life choices, to their career choices. Should women be veterinary medicine, have the right to be there and have kids and have families? Absolutely.
MC: What did the landscape of female leadership in the profession look like when you begin your careers?
PH: You know, when I started my career, yes, we didn’t have nearly as many women in the profession as we do now. But I will say, to me, it was never a detriment. It was almost as a positive. I did start doing initially some mixed animal practice. I was always well received on farms, and they just wanted their animals taken care of.
I do think it’s changed now. We’ve shifted, of course, our number of women involvement, so a little different now, but I never felt there was any detriment to moving forward in leadership. When I first came on the board of the OVMA, we did have a woman president, and we moved on from there.
MC: Have you had similar experiences, Dr. Musolf?
BM: I did not know a single woman veterinarian. When I thought about becoming a veterinarian, the only female veterinarians I knew were the faculty at the veterinary medical college. And I honestly didn’t look at them as female veterinarians. They were just veterinarians. And the veterinarians who are the faculty and the veterinarians whose practices I observed, and they were my role models.
MC: So, ladies, can you tell me about any forms of discrimination that you may have encountered in your career?
BM: Did I face some discrimination? Yeah, in a sense. I remember I went to that mixed practice, and my background was really not food animal; I did horses and small animals. Somehow I found myself on emergency food animal call. And I remember like 11:00 one night, somebody called and said his cow had cast her withers and I thought, “What the heck is that?” I figured out that it was a prolapsed uterus. I couldn’t find the tech for the practice. He wasn’t answering his phone. The other doctor wasn’t answering his phone. So I went because there was nobody else, and somebody had to help that cow. And I figured out what this issue was.
I walked across a plank on a manure pit, and I somehow got that prolapsed uterus back in. I told the owner that I thought the cow had something called obturator paralysis and that I did not think she was ever going to get up. And in those days, downer cows could go on the truck to the slaughterhouse. And I suggested he put her on the truck.
Then later the next week, I went to pick up a call at that place and this fella, his name was Roland, he’s passed away now. Kind of looked like a Roland should look, if you know what I mean. And did I mention that he had like three really handsome sons in their 20s? And he says to me he “blank nearly defecated”— that’s not the word he used—when he found out I wasn’t Doctor X’s wife. I didn’t think much more about that until he complained to Doctor X that, unlike the guys when they did a prolapse, I didn’t take my shirt off when I did them, and I thought, well, really! Everybody who knows me knows I have kind of wicked sense of humor sometimes, and I thought, I’ll fix him. Back then, when I was in my twenties, girls were doing a lot of aerobics and they always wore leotards. So I went to pick up like, I don’t know, a preg check or something on the way back from a farm call, and I said, “Well, Roland, I hear you have a complaint about me.” So I ripped open my overhauls. Of course I had the leotards underneath. The guy just pales. Turns out he was the president of the local Grange. I had called all of the things with his cattle correctly. It’s just like Dr. Haines said: You’re good at what you do. And after that I was in. The farmers all liked me.
Did I have trouble later on? Sometimes. I don’t even know if I call it trouble. I worked the ER one night when I came home from PA. I started working emergency on the weekends, noon on Saturday until 9 a.m. Sunday was my shift. And you did not complain. And with that place, it was rock and roll. We were one of the first small animal ERs in the country. I remember a guy came in; his dog had some sort of a laceration. I had every exam room full. I was one busy lady. And he looks at me and he said to me, “You’re too young, and you’re a woman.”
It was very apparent that laceration was a long way from that dog’s heart and it wasn’t going to kill him. And I looked back at him and I said, “The East Side Emergency Clinic is about 15 miles east of here off of 480. Dr. Eldridge is working over there and he’s a man, but unfortunately, he’s my age, if that bothers you. Now, if you want me to treat your dog, I’ll be happy to treat your dog. Otherwise East Side Emergency is open.” And I walked out the exam room door and went on to the next client.
And I think that’s what you do. You don’t sit around and harbor, oh, somebody complained because I was a woman. I never gave that much emotional or even it’s not worth that kind of thought. You just move on and you are the best at what you do, and that’s how you gain the respect of the clients and your colleagues.
MC: I love it. Dr. Haines?
PH: Personally, myself, I never felt that. I felt challenged to prove myself, but I never felt like I was kept from anything because I was a woman. My abilities as a veterinarian, that would challenge me more, discriminate more, especially when you practice large animals. But you did it.
KB: So you feel like that would be something that you would have faced regardless of your gender.
PH: Yeah, especially as a young veterinarian. I think it was just the challenge of being able to do your job.
MC: Do you remember your first experience in organized veterinary medicine as a leader?
BM: I think I was a leader by accident in many ways. I started at the school simply because, you know that noon to 9 a.m. shift? The guy that was supposed to relieve me didn’t show up till one in the afternoon and I didn’t walk out till five. And my girlfriend said to me, “Barbara, if you don’t get out of that job, it’s going to kill you. You need to sleep sometime.” And she was correct on that.
I ended up being a leader and on the executive board of the Cleveland Academy of Veterinary Medicine for many years, again, almost by accident. I wanted my students to get exposed to their employers of the future. And the Cleveland Academy met four to five times a year for the purpose of continuing education. I thought a good way to get those students exposed was to host the CAVM meetings and save them the money they were using to rent hotel rooms. And in turn, they had to allow my students to attend the meetings free of charge. And I dealt with just all kinds of things and I usually managed to fix whatever it was, so people got used to seeing me. It goes on from there.
PH: Yeah. I basically started veterinarian leadership with OVMA, I think that was back in 2003.
MC: So, because you have some role models, did you feel like you had a path to follow to leadership, or did you have to carve out your own pathway to leadership over the course of your career?
BM: I would tell you that I never thought at all about becoming a leader in the profession or a leadership path. That just wasn’t even something I considered. I was busy trying to be a really good veterinarian. Sometimes I ended up in leadership positions. Really wasn’t by choice, especially after I went to the college. When the dean tells you to chair a committee, you do what the dean tells you. And I guess I must have been pretty good at it because I found myself doing lots and lots of committee work and I also taught for many years. Every time you stand in front of a classroom, you’re a leader. I also think that every time you talk to a client and you counsel them about their animal, that’s leadership. So I just think it’s part of the profession. I don’t think I ever once thought about becoming a leader or what it took to become a leader.
PH: Yeah, I never felt that I had to carve it out. I always felt you’re a veterinarian and when you handle yourself professionally and are dignified, you are accepted throughout. I think maybe what is so key to our profession is people respect veterinarians. And I think if you handle yourself in that manner, you’re accepted.
BM: I ended up on the board of OVMA because Dr. Garrison asked me to run for District 7 rep.
PH: And actually I was invited to run for the board by Dr. Bednarski at a dog show. We were both attending a dog show and he said, “We’ve got an open seat in your district; you ought to consider running.” And I did. And it started from there.
KB: Many veterinarians consider themselves to be more introverted, but most leaders are extroverted. Once you found yourself in that leadership role, did you ever find it difficult to speak up or voice your opinion? Or have you always been naturally assertive?
BM: Krysten, you are talking to someone who was so quiet when she was in veterinary medical school. I asked exactly one question the entire time, and it took me a long time to get enough courage to raise my hand and ask Dr. Bonagura, “Wasn’t that peak on the EKG bigger than the other?” I think becoming assertive grows when you get confidence in your ability to do your work in your profession. It comes along. And I don’t think it necessarily has anything to do with being male or female. I think it’s just being a person new to a profession. I am not the same person at this age that I was in my mid twenties.
And no, I didn’t feel hesitant to vocalize my opinion. I didn’t feel like I needed to be shy about anything or would not be accepted. I don’t find it hard to vocalize my opinion, especially as I’ve gotten older. Because you’re saying it because you want to make things better, you’re trying to solve a problem.
MC: Absolutely. Despite women outnumbering men in the profession, there are substantially fewer women in leadership roles. Why do you think that is?
BM: You know, you look at the OVMA Board composition right now: Four out of nine members of the Executive Committee in the Board are women. Nine out of nine District Representatives are women. You look at Directors at Large, it’s one out of three. I think that you’ll see more women in leadership positions in the future, but I don’t think it’s because they decided they wanted to become leaders.
I think that when people—notice I said people, meaning men and women—are in their mid-twenties to probably mid-forties, they’re working really, really hard in their practices or whatever facet of veterinary medicine they’re in, but they’re also in that age bracket where many of them are raising children and they only have so many hours in a day. They’re choosing to spend their time with their practices and choosing to spend their time with their families. And then when they get to be in their 40s and 50s, they have more time to devote to organized veterinary medicine.
PH: You know, as I said throughout this, I think the opportunities are there. I totally agree with Barb that age is probably more of a factor for us in finding people to donate time. Today in small animal practice, large animal practice, the time is not there. As she pointed out, we’re booking two months ahead. We’re all scrambling. But I’m really proud of what the OVMA has accomplished in what we control, because I think the opportunities for anybody are there for the taking, and I think we continue down our path. I can’t imagine a better position for anyone to step forward and move forward into leadership in our profession.
KB: What advice do you have for veterinary professionals who might in the near future find themselves in a position to take on a more active role?
BM: I honestly believe that the way you become a leader is sometimes by accident. I think the first thing you do is you work hard and you earn the respect of your colleagues, the respect of the staff, the respect of the clients. It’s important to hone your listening skills. So often people talk at us, or I can talk to the clients, and it’s just not getting through. You have to listen to the people around you. I think that’s really hard.
I think you do have to be a problem fixer. I didn’t say I’m going to be a leader. I just saw this has got to be fixed because this is affecting all of us. So I fixed it. Then the next thing you know, people start to come to you, and then all of a sudden you find out, whoops, I’m a leader. Do you know what I’m saying? The young people need to just join their local in their state and their national organization. And then the time comes when you have a little more time, and then you join a committee, and then somebody says, “Well, hey, could you chair this? Because we really need somebody to do this.” And so you do it. I think it’s a natural progression for men and for women.
KB: Speaking of a natural progression, the two of you have overcome a lot of challenges and, as a result, have seen a lot of change in the veterinary profession during the course of your careers. What new challenges concern you about the future, and how do you see the profession continuing to evolve as we overcome these obstacles?
BM: Where I see barriers isn’t so much for women. You don’t need to be picked up and lifted onto a platform. There’s a ramp. They just need to walk up it. I do think that there are barriers for people of color, for people of different gender persuasions, and those are some things that really need to be addressed within our profession.
PH: I also am struggling in the profession right now, realizing we have so many veterinarians that don’t want to continue in the business. And I don’t know if that’s just male, female—maybe more female. Obviously, females tend to take on more of the family responsibility with children and things like that. They just don’t have the time to give.
BM: I don’t think you should have to work 60 or 80 hours a week like I did back in those days. And I lived above the clinic. Big mistake! Do not ever live above the clinic. There was no such thing as an emergency clinic, and people will bang on your door at all hours, and then you find yourself peeking through the curtains to try to find out if in fact they do have a dog with them.
But do they need to work 60 or 80 hours? No. But I really would like us to be graduating people who are at least going to work 40 hours a week. That realize it’s a lot more than just a degree. It’s a calling. It’s filling a need of society.
PH: That’s my fear that we’re seeing right now.
MC: Especially given what we’re living through with COVID: A lot of increased ownership of animals, people being a little bit more cognizant of the health of their animals and taking more responsibility and involvement and wanting to get them to the doctor, making sure that they’re healthy. But you’re seeing that drop off where people are dropping down to part time or just leaving the profession altogether.
PH: And I think our generations knew what we were getting into in veterinary medicine, accepted the role. I feel like a lot of the new grads come out and are just shocked. It’s hard work and it’s difficult and it’s emotional. When we were accepted and went through school, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to be veterinarians. We’re going to go to private practice and make lives better for animals and interact with our clients and become a part of the community. I see too many now that it’s just a degree, and I don’t feel they have the passion of being a veterinarian, and I don’t know if that’s able to get back.
KB: I think we can agree that having more women in the profession is certainly a positive change. But it is a double-edged sword in that women—and I’m going to be getting into some stereotypes here—but women tend to be more empathetic. They tend to be the primary caregivers. They may be more emotional, even without factoring in that this is a profession that tugs at your heartstrings. And here we are in the COVID era, with women facing all of those challenges we’ve been talking about and then some, prompting more and more of them to leave the profession. Keeping in mind that the majority of the profession is now female, does this concern you? Do you think that’s going to have a detrimental effect on veterinary medicine in the future?
PH: Personally, I do. Now, I don’t think it’s an impossible thing. I just think when you look at the balance of 80 percent women in the class versus 20 percent men, like everything in life, we try to solve problems and we tend to over-solve problems, and then we create more problems. And I don’t know if that was the reasoning. I don’t know if it’s how they’re interviewing. I’m not sure where we’re getting to that point. Or is it just the applications? Have we shifted away from a profession that males are wanting to join? And I don’t even think it’s—again, it’s not he versus she. It’s still about the individual and the recognition that this is a profession that you live and breathe. And I hope we can select the applicants that have that passion, or we’re going to end up maybe totally corporate, part-time work all the time. And I’m speaking as someone that does a lot of part-time work, but you still have to have that calling for this profession, for all its levels.
BM: I agree. I never thought about being a veterinarian as being my work. Being a veterinarian is a lot more than just a job. It’s a lot more than just your work. It’s a passion. It becomes part of who you are. Do you need to not be doing veterinary medicine every hour of every day? Of course. It’s not healthy to do anything to that degree of exclusivity. Does that make sense to you folks?
PH: Yeah, but it’s always in you, whether you’re working or not, it’s there.
BM: Exactly. I don’t know what the answers are, but veterinary medicine needs people to go out there and see all those sick animals. I don’t think being a doctor is at all like working nine to five at Walmart.
PH: One of the greatest enjoyment I’ve had at the OVMA was with Legislative Committee. To walk into the Statehouse and see the respect our profession has… We’re advocates and they listen to us. And I do think the general population has that feeling for veterinarians, and I don’t ever want to lose that. I want that to maintain for this profession.
KB: Absolutely, and it’s something OVMA aims to uphold.
MC: Yes, and thank you ladies, for your time today. I really appreciate it.