Today is International Women’s Day. This is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality. I work in a sector where the majority of professionals are women. But as with other industries, our industry is full of inequalities.
Who do you think of when asked to name a top dog trainer? Do you immediately think about those who have high media profiles? Or about someone who has personally helped or inspired you? Chances are that if you thought of the former, a high profile trainer, that the person is male. And vice versa with the latter. To a great extent it’s a numbers game. But if that was all there was to it, given the high number of female trainers to male (some estimates showing about 85% of trainers are women) both answers might well be women*.
It has been shown time and time again, that when it comes to pushing forward, to grabbing the limelight, men are better at ignoring their inexperience. They more easily focus on their pros rather than their cons. Women do the opposite. Even now, as I write, there are several TV series that employ male ‘experts’ despite their methods and experience being outdated and shallow. I’ve met male trainers who are just at the beginning of their training career but choose to quickly skip the steps that provide depth of understanding and well rounded knowledge. In the blink of an eye they’re on stage preaching to audiences of much more qualified female colleagues. Sometimes they get called out, but more often than not, they don’t.
In some ways I admire their hubris. But I don’t want to pay money to listen to them. And I don’t want to give up my time to school them. I’d rather put my head down and do the work. I prefer to find trainers who have been there and done that, not those who have leapfrogged over those they once sought to learn from. Every teacher wants her students to do better than her, to achieve even more. I love to see people who have come through my classes or attended workshops making a difference for dogs and our relationship with them. I’m not impressed when I see folks who have been so self absorbed that they fail to learn from others, or even begin to look at their own inadequacies.
In pet dog training, it’s still a novelty to find a man attending a seminar or a class, especially if it’s run by a woman. The number of male delegates definitely increases when the trainer/presenter is male. When looking at the different disciplines you can see a definite split. For example there are more men who train and work in security, protection and detection. And there are more women who work in nursing, grooming and pet dog training. There are inroads being made, but I’m as likely to see a female dog handler as a male veterinary nurse. They are out there, but in small number.
I read a very disturbing article in the Vet Record from September 2019. A study had shown that female veterinary surgeons still face outright discrimination and sexism from colleagues and clients. Such was the predominance of the findings that even though the authors hadn’t set out to focus on gender “it became such an issue of importance that it could not be ignored.”
Clients demanded to see a male vet or insisted on a second opinion from ‘one of the boys.The research revealed ‘highly significant’ client sexism. These outdated and inappropriate attitudes were rarely challenged by male vets. Many seemed oblivious to the issues. And some feared upsetting clients.
Issues of physical weaknesses relating to large animal work came up frequently. But even when it was a question of technique rather than strength, both the male and female vets rarely challenged the perceived norm.
A more macho element is certainly present in scentwork training. Ironically, I have found this is much more pronounced now than it ever was when I was training with the Royal Air Force Police to be a detector dog handler. Back then, women serving in the RAF were not allowed to become dog handlers. But I never met a male ‘Kennel Maid’. Women were the carers and men were the protectors? I’d have expected that as a female Customs Handler that I might be treated differently to my male colleagues. But in truth I was not. And if I was perceived differently, I was never aware of it.
Sadly though, I have experienced much discrimination as a scentwork trainer. Teaching people to search for a specific scent for fun seems to have riled my male colleagues. Despite my greater experience and skills in this area, I have found myself being sidelined and suppressed by male trainers working in the same sphere. And at more than one training event where I’ve participated as a delegate, my contributions were actively ignored and my voice dismissed. Sometimes, when able to ‘prove’ myself by demonstrating my knowledge, male colleagues have stepped back and started to listen. But never have I received an apology. They simply stop talking over me.
As a woman who has always preferred to work with men than women, I find the current state incredibly sad. Now I’m working with mostly women, it is the men who seek to undermine and underestimate me. I have fruitlessly reached out to colleagues and peers. One trainer ignored all contact attempts. Until I wrote a Facebook post on my personal page with which he disagreed. Oh yes, he was quick to make contact and attempt to put me down then.
I recall speaking at a conference where all the female speakers stayed for the multi-day event, supporting and listening to their fellow presenters. But the two male speakers literally arrived just before their slots and left immediately after. This seemed highly disrespectful. And yet both were lauded as gods. I had a great conference and received such appreciative feedback and engaged interaction from the delegates that it still makes me smile. And yet, there was this underlying feeling that we, the female speakers, were playing second fiddle to our male counterparts.
But sexism isn’t confined to men. Some women are part of the problem. I’ve written before about the cult of dog training. Where men, regardless of their abilities, were, and are, treated as gurus. I’ve literally seen women fawning at the feet of male speakers. I kid you not!!! While we all have our training heroes, let’s just think about how we express our admiration.
How can we change the narrative? How can we support women to come forward, to put their head above the parapet? In recent years, the female trainers who have done this have been quickly and viciously shot down. And yet the male counterparts who are openly promoting abusive ‘training’ methods are given sponsorship deals and second series options.
Back down here at ground level, women could come together to be more supportive of each other. I’ve found many in dog training to be resistant to collaboration. Many are fearful of supporting ‘the competition’. And with online training potentially making us all the competition, we must rise above our reserve by fearlessly promoting each other. Believe me, there are enough dogs to go round! Each of us has our own style, our own passions, our own specialisms. Nobody else trains like you. Or me. Find fellow trainers who share your ethos, your ethics. Promote her. Reach out to her. Support her.
I want to take the time to say that I have also worked with some wonderful male colleagues. I’ve had lots of men come to my classes and workshops, especially since I started teaching scentwork, who have been open and generous and collaborative. And those are the types of men that I love to work with all day long. This post seeks to highlight and expose the behaviour that many men and women might not instantly recognise as sexism. But when you start to look at patterns, trends and behaviour it quickly bobs to the surface.
We can all make small changes in our approach to work. One change I’ve made in recent years is to refer to dogs as she/her in my writing. I’d been taught that when talking about dogs in general, or anything in general, using male pronouns was ‘grammatically correct.’ But it’s not. Choosing to talk about dogs as female is another way to acknowledge that not everything is male.
My next point goes out to my male colleagues. Think about your behaviour, your approach. Are you perpetuating the male guru stereotype? Or are you giving women equal billing, equal status? Don’t be afraid to work with women. We have lots to offer. Collaborate. Be respectful. Be mindful of your behaviour. And when you see men behaving badly, call them out. They make you look bad and us feel bad. Every industry has it’s Harvey Weinsteins and ours is no different. Look for behaviour that exploits and demeans. And then help nip it in the bud. Or openly support the women who are brave enough to talk about their experiences despite threats and bullying.
Often it is very difficult for women to address issues of sexism. Whether we are being exploited, demeaned or ignored, drawing attention to the behaviour is to risk drawing unwanted attention to ourselves. Nobody wants to be the complainer, the moaner, the awkward one. What if we are never invited to present again? Or that others who haven’t got direct experience of an individual’s inappropriate behaviour disagree with what we are saying? Maybe we got the wrong end of the stick and what our gut is telling us is way off base?
Let me tell you, if people want to hear you present, it doesn’t matter how you behave. Some of the most popular speakers out there right now, are highly challenging, even unpleasant, to deal with. But even when this is acknowledged, they are still rehired. I’m certainly not advocating horrible behaviour. But I am suggesting that if you have specific requirements or ‘need’ 5 star accommodation, ask for it – your male counterparts do. So be yourself. Be professional. Try to be accommodating but have your own boundaries. And never be afraid to speak out. Ask for what you need, don’t accept less than you are worth.
So there it is, my take on what it is to be a female trainer in 2021. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rewritten this post. I’ve deleted and added to it multiple times. I’m afraid that I will come across as strident/complaining/unlikeable/[insert your own adjective]. But I have little control of other’s opinions of me. I’m not everybody’s cup of tea. And I’m fine with that. I love what I do. And I know I’m good at it. (I cannot tell you how hard it was not to delete that. The conditioning runs deep.)
Posts like these aren’t easy. But I was inspired by the #ChooseToChallenge, the theme of this year’s IWD. I believe it is important to speak out when we can, to make a difference no matter how small. While each individual will have their own experience of life and work in the ever growing animal industries, surely we can all agree that gender issues should not exist in this day and age? Accepting people for what they can do and how they can help others is more important than what gender they are. But until we reach that utopia, stop holding others down, pushing them back and dismissing their contribution just because we are women.
If you would like to learn more from some of the female pioneers and grafters in our industry here are just a few of the many women who have inspired me:
Sue Sternberg, Lorna Coppinger, Mary Ray, Terry Ryan, Emily Larlham, Sarah Whitehead, Jean Donaldson, Sarah Fisher, Theresa McKeon, Sian Ryan, Susan Friedman, Temple Grandin, Kathleen Tepperies, Alexandra Horowitz, Pat Tagg, Kylie Birch, Sophia Yin, Natalie Cannon.
*I’m referring to trainers in the UK, Canada and USA in this post – I’m sure the numbers and ratio varies in different countries.