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Diversity and inclusion in the veterinary professions

Niall Connell - RCVS President (2019 - 2020)

It’s no secret that the veterinary professions are overwhelmingly white with a high proportion of people coming from more affluent socio-economic backgrounds. However, it’s also no secret that this is not the background of the UK population at large and it has been increasingly recognised that it is beneficial for professions to reflect the ever-more-diverse society they serve.

Niall Connell In my first address as RCVS President, at Royal College Day this year, I mentioned that one of the key focuses of my presidency is increasing diversity and inclusion in the veterinary professions.

As this is an issue that I am both personally and professionally passionate about, I want to take this opportunity to expand on what this means, and what this looks like with regards to the RCVS.

So, what are diversity and inclusion?

Diversity, in its essence, is about empowering people and respecting what makes them different – whether this be their ethnicity, socio-economic background, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental health, or religion.

It is about bringing together a range of people and ideas, informed by varying backgrounds, experiences and ways of life.

Inclusion is about putting in place the organisational and systemic conditions that enable a more diverse workforce. A significant shift, such as increasing diversity within a profession, does not just happen naturally and without intervention, and this is why it is so important that we and our partner organisations make a concerted effort to increase systemic inclusion.

Why are diversity and inclusion so important for the veterinary professions?

The population of the UK is becoming more diverse, as is the animal owning public.

As such, it is important that the veterinary professions reflect the wider society that they serve. This means that, ideally, diversity should be reflected not only in the makeup of veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses but also in representative bodies, veterinary governance and other such groups.

Not only could this result in improved and more relatable customer service, but it may also encourage more people to seek veterinary care for their animals where they may not have otherwise.

Diversity within professions also supports innovation and positive change, as there are an increased range of ideas and world views to foster new ideas.

A profession that can tap into this varied and diverse breadth of knowledge and experience is better placed to develop new services and processes to meet diverse demographic needs. As we want to see the veterinary professions advance, we cannot neglect the crucial role diversity has to play in this evolution.

There is also a strong moral case for diversity – particularly with regards to equity. To achieve equity we either have to make changes to the system, or provide those who are disadvantaged with support to have an equal chance at succeeding.

In the veterinary context this means making changes to reach out to and support groups who otherwise would not be able to consider the veterinary professions as a viable career option – due to ethnicity, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, physical or mental health condition, or other factors.

What role does the RCVS have to play in supporting diversity?

One of the key functions of the RCVS under our Royal Charter is to uphold and advance veterinary standards, and to promote, encourage and advance veterinary medicine, in the interests of the health and welfare of animals and in the wider public interest.

As increasing diversity would advance the professions and their ability to meet the interests of a diverse wider public, the RCVS has a responsibility under our Charter to focus on this area through key initiatives.

As the regulator for the professions, and with the Register of Veterinary Surgeons and Register of Veterinary Nurses, we are also well placed to harness the wealth of this data about the profession and take a lead role in researching the issue.

For sustainable change to take place, it needs to be evidence-based – and having a good understanding of our professions through data is a crucial building block for this.

In addition to the above reasons, I believe that we all have a responsibility to improve diversity in the professions we are in and serve. We know that, as a society, we are not there yet with regards to sufficiently addressing systemic factors that contribute to inequity and a lack of diversity across many professions, including the veterinary professions. It is therefore, in my opinion, the responsibility of each and every one of us, including those at the RCVS, to strive to improve and increase diversity and inclusion.

So, what is the RCVS doing to address diversity and inclusion?

To ensure a focused approach to this important issue the RCVS has set up the Diversity and Inclusion Working Group, which held its first meeting in April this year.

The Group aims to break down barriers with regards to selection, recruitment and retention to encourage more diversity within the professions – including, but not limited to, ethnic, socio-economic and sexual orientation diversity. This Group will be the driving force with regards to the RCVS’ role in this.

To increase the diversity in the professions will require a significant shift as it is a multi-factorial and complex issue and it will take time to get it right.

It is crucial that any initiatives and interventions we put in place to address the lack of diversity in the veterinary professions are underpinned by evidence. As such, I want to stress that this is a process – to have the greatest impact and mitigate the risks of unintended consequences, we want to ensure we make the right decisions regarding interventions from the start.

We know that we need to create a diverse workforce by encouraging people from different backgrounds into the professions – and that this starts from a young age.

We know that we need to ensure that there are systems in place to support a diverse profession – including a systemic commitment to listening to, and incorporating, different perspectives.

We know that we need to continue to strive to have diverse leaders in place throughout the professions. As I said in my first speech as RCVS President, quoting American activist for children’s rights, Marian Wright Edelman, “It’s hard to be what you can’t see”.

Our Diversity and Inclusion Working Group has been formed to further progress these aims and objectives – and this starts with better understanding the long-term structural, societal and cultural barriers to entering the veterinary professions. Without knowing exactly where we currently stand, we can’t map out what we need to do to reach our goal of diverse professions.

With that being said, there are some more immediate actions we are looking to take in this space. For example – we are actively looking to share leadership journeys and stories from diverse leaders across the professions.

We are also looking to implement school outreach programmes – where diverse veterinary leaders will go into schools to encourage children from all walks of life to consider veterinary career options.

This is just the start.

Why now?

We have been talking about diversity for a few years and now, with the Working Group in place, we are in a strong position to work towards ensuring these changes are made effectively.

In an ideal world there would be diversity in the professions already – but we know that this is not the case. So why now? Because now is the best time.

There is a Chinese proverb which says ‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now’. Some people may think we’re late to the party, but better now than never.

What’s next?

The Diversity and Inclusion Working Group will continue to gather information to better understand where we are today and what we can do to improve diversity into the future. You can expect to see more and more information coming from the group as an evidence-based plan is drawn up and kicks into action. Watch this space!

Published on 15 August 2019