The F.B.I. and veterinary medicine don’t have a lot in common but in terms of women’s leadership, there are some striking parallels.
Women at top levels, from politics to journalism, hold on average only 20 percent of top posts. The number is stubbornly entrenched, eking forward at a pace much slower than the rate at which women have swelled managerial and high posts lower than the top. In veterinary medicine, from practice owners to deans to heads of multi-billion dollar pet care corporations, the percentage of women in leadership hovers in the 20-30 percent range. Women swelled the ranks at veterinary colleges, reaching over fifty percent of the student body, in the 1980s. They surpassed men, wearing white coats and donning surgical gowns at over fifty percent of practicing veterinarians in 2007. At the F.B.I. it was as late as 1972 when women were allowed to become agents, carrying guns and running investigations.
It’s critical to open paths and operationalize innovative ideas to get women into high places. Why? It’s not just the right thing to do for gender equity, but it’s good for all of us. Women are great at solving problems, at working collaboratively, at infusing positive values into bottom line discussions. Research shows that gender diversity is good for profits, and forward thinking companies are working hard to get women onto boards of directors and into corner offices.
Women in leadership is also good for our safety. Last week, F.B.I. director James B. Comey described a critical lack of female and minority leadership that can hinder investigations and keep the agency out of touch with the communities it serves. Of the bureau’s 13,523 agents over all, 2,683 — or about 20 percent — are women. About 83 percent of the agents over all are white, according to a New York Times October 23 article.
“The big challenge we’ve been confronting over the last two years is, how do we get women and people of color” to join the F.B.I., Mr. Comey said last Sunday at a conference of police chiefs in San Diego. “That’s been our big trouble, and I’ve described it as a crisis.”
To be fair, the F.B.I. has a long history as a male bastion of law enforcement, and it takes time to climb out of that tradition, just as it does for other traditionally male-led professions. The veterinary profession is just over 150 years old and it wasn’t until 2007 that women outnumbered men. At the F.B.I., despite efforts to make change, it has lost ground.
In 2013, women at the F.B.I. held about 20 percent of senior agent jobs and 15 women ran field offices, according to the Times article. Today, women hold just 12 percent of 220 senior agent positions, including nine who run field offices in places like Los Angeles; Oklahoma City; Louisville, Ky.; and Knoxville, Tenn.
Their goal now is to increase women in leadership to 33 percent, just about at the commonly accepted threshold of critical mass, the juncture where women or any minority group in an organization can begin to establish traction as a group. The agency plans to track recruitment and retention of women and minorities, for example, and base performance reviews on the success of recruitment efforts.
The gender gap at the F.B.I. isn’t surprising but what stands out in the Times article are the reasons (cited by current and former female agents) for the gap. They are almost universally the same reasons that contribute to the leadership gap in other professions, including veterinary medicine.
The first reason is built into the promotion system. Agents at leadership levels can be transferred at nearly a moment’s notice, making it unappealing for women with families. When I interviewed female military veterinarians, they reported that one of their biggest challenges is the pressure on family life. Colonel Cheryl Sofaly, DVM, who heads the Military Working Dog Services at Lackland Air Force Base, said that while there are benefits to raising a family in different parts of the world, “when you’re stationed “down range,” it’s hard to be away from them for extended periods.” Many women in the military and F.B.I. don’t want to rise up the ranks at that sacrifice.
The second reason is that there are far too few mentors in the F.B.I. to encourage and support women in high posts. This is a striking parallel to all professions where mentors play a crucial role in women’s careers.
Janice Fedarcyk, who ran the New York field office in 2010-2012 with 2,000 employees, said that she had a cadre of supporters along the way.
“I had a great career,” she said. “There are a lot of different reasons why that is the case. Some women don’t want to take that next step. Some guys don’t want to take that next step. I was fortunate coming up in the bureau. I had strong mentors.”
In our book, Leaders of the Pack, Women and the Future of Veterinary Medicine, my co-author Dr. Donald Smith and I interviewed hundreds of women who credit their mentors with their success.
“My mentor in graduate school used to jest, ‘When you’re dean, you’ll need to this or that’,” said Dr. Lisa Nolan, Dean of Veterinary Medicine at Iowa State University. “I had absolutely no vision myself of ever being dean but I guess he did.”
A third reason that there are few women in the highest ranks at the F.B.I. is that few women apply for senior positions. Amy Hess, the first woman to head the agency’s science and technology branch, says that women don’t apply for high administrative jobs because they joined to be part of the action: working on cases, hitting the streets, pursuing their dream job as an agent.
This parallels the veterinary profession in all domains but especially in academia where pursuing department chair or a deanship takes women away from what attracted them to the profession to begin with: science, medicine, research and teaching. But it also probably has a lot to do with having fewer female role models at the top of the decidedly man’s world at the F.B.I. ranks. It could very well have to do with the tendency among women to wait to be noticed for their merits or to limit themselves because they feel unqualified, topics we explore in Leaders of the Pack.
The F.B.I. is revealing that their leadership is marked by a gender gap and they’re working to address it. In veterinary medicine, the same is true. The Women’s Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative, the AVMA, student groups and others are sharing best practices to advance women into leadership positions. The country’s investigative crime organization and the profession responsible for the nation’s pets and livestock might learn from each other as we all work together for gender equity. Our safety and our strength depend on it.