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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Women's Leadership in the U.S. Congress and the AVMA's House of Delegates: Exploring Parallels and Looking Forward

By Julie Kumble*, Guest Author
with Donald F. Smith, Cornell University
Posted November 28, 2012

As veterinarians watched the election returns on November 6th, most eyes were on the top of the ticket or on specific congressional, state or local races. However, something else was happening as the election of women to Congress reached historic proportions. For the first time, the Senate will have 20 women (an increase of three), and the House of Representatives will reach 17% women.

Julie Kumble, 
guest author
What was particularly fascinating to us is how closely the gender distribution in the 113th Congress will approximate the number of women representatives in the House of Delegates (HOD) of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

The HOD is the AVMA's principal governing body and consists of 52 delegates, one from each state including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico; plus 14 members from professional associations like the specialty, species and career-based organizations. For each delegate, an alternate is also a sitting member of the House. 

Only delegates (not alternates) can vote within the HOD, and their votes are weighted proportionate to the population of their respective states. For example, California has 47 weighted votes and Texas has 41. At the other end of the population scale, Wyoming and Vermont have four and five weighed votes, respectively. The allied groups each have two weighted votes.

This graph shows the gender proportions in the newly-elected 113th Congress compared to the 2012-13 HOD. We further segmented the data in the first two columns for those HOD delegates and alternates who are state representatives (104 total) from the total number of delegates and alternates that includes those representing other organizations (134 total).

Percentages of Women and Men  in the 113th US Congress
and in the AVMA's House of Delgates

The proportions of women in the HOD and in Congress are entirely consistent with other sectors, from academia to business to politics, where women hold only an average of 18% of the top leadership positions. However, women earn 57% of college degrees, with most of the gains above 50% being achieved in the last decade. Women have been more numerous that men in veterinary colleges since the early 1980s, and have earned over 80% of veterinary degrees for almost 20 years.

The following graph shows the relative age distribution of delegates and alternate delegates for the HOD, using graduating year as an rough proxy for age. The mean year-of-graduation for each cohort is shown on the y-axis. For example, the mean year-of-graduation for all HOD delegates is 1979 (33 years ago). For women, the mean year-of-graduation is 26 years ago (1986). Male delegates on the other hand are older, with their mean year of graduation being 35 years ago (1977). 

Not surprisingly, the alternates who represent the more recently-appointed HOD members are more likely to be younger. That age difference is seen in men as well as women.

Distribution of House of AVMA's House of Delegates
by Year of Graduation
Experts recommend a minimum of 30% women for leadership positions in any sector to achieve a critical mass where women’s roles become part of the norm of that sector. The Wellesley Center for Women considers that proportion to be the minimum needed for change at the governance and top levels.  With the total population of women veterinarians now over 50% and growing more rapidly than any other major profession, it is even more important to establish institutional frameworks to assure that the number of female HOD delegates and alternates reach and maintain at least the 30% critical mass as soon as possible.

Karen Bradley, DVM
Delegate and Chair,
House Advisory Committee
Dr. Karen Bradley is the current HOD delegate from Vermont and also currently serves as the chair of the House Advisory Committee. This is a group of seven members who act as the executive body for the HOD.  As the leading member of the HOD and also the owner of a four-doctor veterinary practice, Bradley has the opportunity and the responsibility to look ahead and consider the changing demographics in our profession from a leadership point of view. 

She comments: "How states and allied groups identify HOD members varies greatly. Some states have many people waiting in line for their turn as a delegate, and others have to seek out people for the position.  Some states even have a formal election from their membership.  Though the Manual of the House of Delegates states that the term for delegates and alternates is four years, there is no limit to the number of terms imposed by the Bylaws nor the Manual.  Without term limits, delegates can remain in office for decades.  

"I am very fortunate to be in Vermont, a state with very active women veterinarians--and men willing to share the table.  Our state VMA's Executive Committee has been approximately 50% women for the last 10 years whereas 20 years ago it was similar to the HOD and Congress with 20% or fewer women.  What did Vermont do to effect this change?  It seems that in our small state, the veterinarians active in organized associations tended to bring in new blood more frequently.  After serving for a number of years they would seek out new recruits for committees and leadership positions and those happened to be women more and more as the population of veterinarians in Vermont became more female.  And for what it’s worth, Vermont's AVMA HOD delegation over the last 20 years has been four women and two men! " 
Looking ahead and considering the changing demographics in our profession, we will do well to encourage more women to run as delegates, to mentor younger female veterinarians and encourage them to take on leadership roles, and to serve as role model to other professions by striving to achieve and surpass the critical mass point of 30% in the House of Delegates.

Dr. Smith invites comments at

*Julie Kumble is Director of Grants and Programs, Women's Fund of Western Massachusetts
Easthampton, Massachusetts 01027. She can be reached at 

Photo credits
Julie Kumble's photo provided by Women's Fund of Western Massachusetts
Karen Bradley's photo provided by the American Veterinary Medical Association