DETROIT — When Dorothy Segal entered Michigan State University's veterinary school in the 1930s, she was one of seven women in the class. She recalls the dean telling them that they didn't belong in the school or the profession.
"There's no place for women here. Go back to the kitchen," Segal recalled him saying. "I made up my mind that he was going to like me when I was done."
At age 93, Segal of Grand Blanc, Mich., has lived to see her chosen profession become dominated by women.
Today, about 2,500 licensed veterinarians practice in Michigan, and about half are women, said Karlene Belyea, director of the Michigan Veterinary Medical Association. And about 87 percent of MSU's 431 students pursuing veterinary medicine degrees are women.
"It's a good thing," said Segal, who graduated from MSU in 1943.
The Kansas Veterinary Medical Association does not keep data as to how many veterinarians in the state are male or female. However, the College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University reports the student body is currently 73 percent female.
An extreme shift
The ascent of women "has happened in higher education across the board, and it's happened in extreme" in veterinary medicine, said Christopher Brown, dean of MSU's College of Veterinary Medicine.
Women now practice in every facet of the veterinary business, operating small businesses like Kari Nugent, who runs a mobile fleet of animal clinics and specializes in hospice care for pets in western Wayne County, Mich. Or Cheryl Good, who owns Dearborn Family Pet Care, which has 15 employees, all women. Or Mary Beth Leininger, who was running a Plymouth, Mich., animal clinic when she became the first female president of the American Veterinary Medical Association in 1996.
Harvard economist Claudia Goldin said the workday of a typical clinic veterinarian can give women, if they are struggling to balance children and family life, more flexibility in a professional career.
Although the training is rigorous, the work settings for veterinarians can follow a family-friendly routine. A small animal clinic is open during the day, has no late or emergency hours and lends itself to flexibility for part-time work.
"When you choose occupations, you also choose because you have a passion for something," said Goldin, who has analyzed why women gravitate to certain professions. But women are balancing career callings with practical needs.
Some experts have said that women, because of feminine-associated qualities such as nurturing and caretaking, are well-suited to the care of pets.
Cassandra Pohl, 40, of Canton, Mich., works as a vet at Dearborn Family Pet Care. Pohl entered the field because she loves animals, but relishes the flexibility it gives her. She works three days a week, plus two Saturdays a month.
"I can make a good living part time, and my husband works full time. I can be home with the kids more often," said Pohl, mother of boys ages 9 and 7.
A bump in the road
Only once in Pohl's career has a client asked that a pet be seen by a male veterinarian.
"My first year of practice, I did deal with a client who was really not very nice to women. ... He wanted a male vet. That was really is the only time that I ran into that," Pohl said. "I've worked in three hospitals, and they were all owned by women."
Jennifer Stokes, who is to graduate from MSU's vet program in 2011, said she first thought of becoming a veterinarian when she heard a career day speaker in grade school.
"She was a woman, matter of fact," said Stokes, 25. "I thought it was cool, and I stuck with it over the years."
"With women, we are more caretakers, and that does show when we're taking care of other people's animals," said Stokes. "I think that aspect is positive when owners look at us. ... With animals, you want to have compassion. I think women might have a niche to do that a little better than men."
A shift in attitudes
It once was believed that women couldn't handle large animals, such as cows and horses, so a vet needed to be a brawny fullback-type. But compared with a 1,700-pound horse, the size difference between a 130-pound woman and a 200-pound man doesn't amount to much. Whatever concerns once may have existed are mitigated now by education, and the availability of tranquilizers to subdue large animals.
"It wasn't about muscles. It was about smarts," said Paula Rode, immediate past president of the Michigan Veterinary Medical Association, who owns Chelsea Animal Hospital.
Even as women dominate the field of veterinary medicine, they don't make up the majority of vets who own their own practice or clinic.
"As the expansion of the female part of the profession continues, they will become practice owners. It's just a matter of time," said Brown, MSU's veterinary dean.
"The profession is stronger and healthier because it's become more diversified," Brown said.
Female veterinarians in the U.S. now outnumber male veterinarians. The numbers flip-flopped in 2009, according to figures released in March by the American Veterinary Medical Association, which reported that women lead men, 44,802 to 43,196, in the field.