University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


Boys' day out at the women-dominated veterinary programme

Females — For decades, the veterinary medicine programme in Denmark has been packed with high-grade-point-average young women. And this is, increasingly, the case throughout the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences. The University Post went to Girls' Day in Science at the UCPH University Teaching Hospital for Large Animals, where a group of boys went against the grain, and invited themselves for a visit.

»What do you actually think a vet really does on a daily basis?« Kirstin Dahl-Pedersen asks a group of upper secondary school boys from Virum who have trooped up to the University Hospital For Large Animals in the Copenhagen suburb of Taastrup.

Some mumbling goes on until one of the boys says »something about dogs and cats.« Kirstin Dahl-Pedersen has heard it many times. It is her prejudice about the prejudices about veterinarians: It’s about cute rabbits, dogs and cats. And even though it is not completely wrong, it is not the whole truth. There are loads of small animal clinics, she says. But there are also clinics for large animals with advanced surgery and huge X-rays.

The government agency Danish Veterinary and Food Administration is the largest individual workplace for vets in Denmark. They work with everything from pig herds and the culling of — like recently in Denmark — mink, to food safety, and the preparation of speech notes when a minister promotes Danish pig production in Japan. This is what Kirstin Dahl-Pedersen did before returning to university. And then there is her favourite example, the former Director of Research and Development at the Novo Nordisk corporation, Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, who has a background in veterinary medicine.

Kirstin Dahl-Pedersen is an assistant professor at the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences, where she teaches and does her own research on animal transport, including the concept of ‘transport suitability’ and how domestic animals are affected by transport.

However, it is not better animal transport that is on the programme this morning at the university hospital in Taastrup. For many years, if not decades, the veterinary medicine programme has been dominated by young women with high grade point averages. In 2021, 83 per cent of admissions were women, and this year it is 90 per cent with a required grade point average of 10 on the 12-point Danish scale. A trend that is repeated throughout the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences.

Women at the UCPH Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences

Pharmacy: 74 per cent
Public Health: 91 per cent
Medicine: 74 per cent
Dentistry: 74 per cent
Health and informatics: 76 per cent
Dental hygienist: 92 per cent
Veterinary medicine: 90 per cent

The skewed gender distribution is also why the University Teaching Hospital for Large Animals did not originally plan to invite guests to the Girls’ Day in Science this year.

»I am convinced that the skewed gender distribution is due to the fact that young people do not know how broad and practical a degree programme it actually is,« says Kirstin Dahl-Pedersen.

»We had 28 girls last year from the Albertslund suburb visiting in connection with Girls’ Day in Science. This just doesn’t make sense. We had a great day, but we just don’t have any problems attracting women to this study programme.«

Boys day

If you look at the list of staff at the University Teaching Hospital for Large Animals, it is also clear that veterinary medicine is not just female-dominated in terms of admissions. On one wall in the entrance hall there are pictures with the names of all staff. The secretariat has seven women and one man. The section for Medicine and Surgery consists of 21 women and four men, while in the Hospital section there are 37 women and eight men. And you should not forget the attendants who care for the animals during the weekends. Here there are 13 women and four men.

The five boys from Virum Gymnasium secondary school are not part of a nationwide campaign to put more testosterone into the female-dominated subjects or the healthcare sector. They were originally scheduled to do an extra assignment back at the secondary school, while the girls visited the Technical University of Denmark DTU in connection with Girls’ Day in Science’s 10th anniversary. And the fact that the boys do not have a similar offer for the women-dominated subjects is an irritation for their biology teacher Alexzander Karjala-Svendsen.

»Girls’ Day in Science is a really good initiative that offers a wealth of opportunities. Women are lagging behind on several natural science degree programmes, so I understand the initiative. Trouble is, I am left with a group of boys with nothing to do at all, and then I have to set up something myself,« he says.

Last year, the boys were sent on a one-day internship as nurses at Herlev Hospital, where they took care of elderly patients. According to them, it entailed diaper changes and bathing. This really pushed their boundaries, they say, but it was a good day. So when Alexzander Karjala-Svendsen became aware of the large gender imbalance in veterinary medicine, in the material from precisely Girls’ Day in Science, it was an easy decision to send the boys there.

He admits that he also wants to push the boys a bit. And they are pushed: After a brief welcome, Kirstin Dahl-Pedersen presents the group for sets of digestive tracts on two trolley tables.

»You are going to have your hands inside those in a moment,« Kirstin Dahl-Pedersen says.

One of the boys is about to throw up when the smell from the four open stomachs hits his nostrils. Someone else asks whether the two round spherical protrusions »are the balls.« They are not, he is assured.

The diversity quota

Admissions statistics for the Faculty of Health and Medical sciences tell a clear story. Women are predominant, and the required grade point averages are generally at the high end. In both pharmacy, medicine and odontology, 74 per cent of the 2022 intake are women. Health and Informatics is a tad higher at 76 per cent, while veterinary medicine, public health science and dental hygienist are found at the top with 90, 91 and 92 per cent women, respectively.

Kirstin Dahl-Pedersen does not believe that this is necessarily a disadvantage for the study programme, but she would like a more diverse study environment. Veterinary medicine is a hodgepodge of interests from government work, to private small animal clinics, to food supervision, to research. There’s a need for all types of people.

It was the wish for a more diverse student intake that led them in 2008 to increase the numbers accepted under the Danish quota 2 system that partly bypasses grade requirements. This is according to Charlotte Bjørnvad, who is Head of Studies at Veterinary Medicine and a researcher in the field of dogs and cats. 50 per cent are now admitted via their grade point averages, while 50 per cent are admitted via quota 2.

»According to the law, we may not discriminate in the form of gender quotas, and it makes no sense to give precedence to boys over girls if there is no real interest there. We need the best candidates, and we believe that the best graduates have many different skills and backgrounds. That’s why we have such a large quota 2 intake,« she says.

In general, just as many men are admitted via quota 1, with grade requirements, as via quota 2 — which partly bypasses them with a test, a large number of personal interviews, and an assessment of individual grades and knowledge within the subject area.

Charlotte Bjørnvad reckons that 20 to 30 of the 180 students are men right now, and that it has been skewed ever since she began her studies in 1989. Back then, 40 of 120 students were men.

»Our students are really brilliant, and we believe that our combination of quota 1 and 2 is a strength because we have more diversity in terms of both background and age. Our students also say that a smaller quota 2 intake will ruin the study environment. Those that are admitted under quota 2 have often more experiences to draw from, and are a bit more mature. In the social environment on the programme, they are often the glue that holds an absolutely fantastic degree programme together, both academically and socially.«

The last couple of years, it has been completely skewed.
Hanne Knude Palhof, chair of the Danish Veterinary Association

From cutlets to pets

One person who does have a theory about why veterinary medicine went from being a male-dominated subject to a woman-dominated one is the chair of the Danish Veterinary Association, Hanne Knude Palhof.

»When I was admitted to the programme in 1985, we were fifty-fifty. It was in the middle and late 1980s that the switch happened. It happened fast, and in the last couple of years, it has been completely skewed. Only 10 per cent men have been admitted this year,« she says.

She prefers to comment on evidence-based research. But she does not know of any research on this particular area. She emphasizes therefore that it is based on some »I kind of think that« presumptions. But her theory about the shift from male-dominated to female-dominated subjects is that veterinary medicine has become a subject on ‘pets’ to a greater extent than previously, where dogs, cats and horses were dominant.

»It has become a completely different business. Years ago, the veterinary was primarily an agricultural profession with a large predominance of men. The opportunities for careers have changed enormously. A large proportion of today’s veterinarians are, apart from the well-known pets area, employed in research and the pharmaceutical industry,« she says.

The gender imbalance is not as pronounced in the Southern European countries of the veterinary doctors’ European organisation, and in several Eastern European countries it is completely the other way round.

»The last time we were at a meeting in Brussels, the Polish delegation showed up with eight men in black suits, but our Danish delegation consisted of six to eight people, with one of them male. But perhaps the trend in Eastern Europe is just delayed compared to Northern Europe.«

She mentions also the high required grade point average, despite a large quota 2 intake.

»We want more diversity in our industry. In fact, I’ve just had a meeting about it. To over-generalize just a bit, there are a lot of white, light-haired, girls studying to become a vet in Denmark. We only have a minimum number of people from different ethnic backgrounds, we have few men, and alternative gender identities are not spoken of. Perhaps we are not so inclusive. But this is a completely new, and important, discussion that has just begun in the European organisation for veterinaries.«

One man shows an interest

After the boys group has dissected the two intestinal tract sets, the intestinal bacteria from a cow’s stomach are examined before they go to an old smithy room to patch up an open wound and rectally examine a large plastic horse.

One of them is really getting into it. 21-year-old Mads Felby, who has tagged along for the day. He has already finished his secondary school, but is strongly considering becoming a veterinarian. So when he heard from his mother’s friend that you could visit the veterinary medicine programme on this day, he asked for permission to come along.

Mads Felby grew up on a recreational farm with horses, a few sheep that turned into many, and cats. He went to riding events with his sister, volunteered to take care of the animals and was at various animal hospitals when the horses were in trouble. Mads Felby has noticed the gender imbalance in his study programme, but it is not something that he thinks about a lot, he reckons.

»For me, it’s a non-issue. It might even make for a better community among the men when there are not so many. But I don’t actually see the big difference. I have also just been to the Royal Life Guards, where there was no difference in whether you were a man or a woman. Differences between the genders don’t mean a lot to me, and this has not been something I have thought about.«

After a teacher, to the horror of the boys’ group, demonstrates how to castrate a stallion, the day ends. Kirstin Dahl-Pedersen goes back to the group with a final remark.

»Is there anyone here who is now considering studying veterinary medicine?«

Among the boys from Virum, there is not much enthusiasm. But Mads Felby, at the back, has had his interest confirmed.