Voices for change: celebrating diversity within the AO

Jessica McCarthy: my AO Access journey

Jessica “Jess” McCarthy loves a challenge—and plenty of them rear their heads when she discusses her path to becoming a veterinary orthopedic surgeon. McCarthy, who practices, teaches, and conducts research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, has proven more than adept at overcoming challenges and helping to level the playing field for others.

In addition to her work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, McCarthy is a member of the AO Access Officer and Faculty Selection Processes Task Force, which is driving changes needed for the AO to reflect the diversity and aspirations of its members and the needs of the patient population they serve.

McCarthy grew up in a small village just south of Oxford in England—the very village where the hit British historical drama TV series, Downton Abbey, is filmed. 

“I spent a lot of my time outdoors and my grandparents, who had a cattle farm, lived close to us, so I spent a lot of the time running around there, too. I was exposed to animals from a very young age, including my grandparents’ dalmatian dogs that I was obsessed with,” McCarthy recalls, noting that
from the time she could walk and talk, she wanted to work with animals. “I think I got into veterinary medicine because I knew I wanted a job where I wouldn’t be sitting at a desk all day. I wanted to work with animals and I wanted to use my hands and my brain at the same time, so veterinary medicine seemed to be the perfect combination.

But achieving that dream hasn’t been a cakewalk.

“My family was very encouraging, but they also pushed me to consider ideas other than veterinary medicine. Definitely, everyone wants a doctor in the family and my parents encouraged me to consider a career treating human patients,” McCarthy notes. “If anything, that just made me have to justify my choice. It forced me to be very clear about why I wanted to become a vet and to set my goals.”

Moreover, her high school actively discouraged her ambition, underlining how “impossible” it would be to get into vet school.

“I was really shot down from the beginning. They were like “You’d have to get straight-A grades and do so much work experience that it’s not worth it, so just pick something else,” she says. “Luckily, my attitude was, ‘No, I can do this.’ If anything, the discouragement fired me up even more to pursue a career as a veterinarian.”

"I Knew it wasn't going o be easy and that I would have to work very hard, but I realized that a career in veterinary medicine was achievable."

Jessica McCarthy, PhD, Department of Surgical Sciences, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Life-changing encouragement
When she was 15, McCarthy had a life-changing experience.

“My school had a program where you had to choose a week of work experience, and my mom knew the local vets, so I did that weeklong experience at a local small animal practice,” she recounts. “I loved it. I was hooked. I saw something different every day for five days: They were treating parrots, rabbits, dogs, and cats. The vets were very down-to-earth people and the fact that they had not attended the top secondary/high schools in the country told me, ‘This is a realistic goal even though these teachers are saying it’s not.’ I knew it wasn’t going to be easy and that I would have to work very hard, but I realized that a career in veterinary medicine was achievable. My weeklong work experience was life changing because, with the encouragement of these local vets, I suddenly could see myself as a vet.”

That personal experience underpins McCarthy’s view that mentorship—a pillar of AO Access—can play a key role in inspiring people and helping them achieve their goals.

After graduating from Bristol University (United Kingdom) with a bachelor’s degree in veterinary science, McCarthy worked in general practice for before embarking on a surgical residency and gained the European College of Veterinary Surgeons Small Animal Surgical Diploma in 2020.

"Because of my own experience, I truly don’t want anyone else to ever have to feel that their sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability, etc, is viewed as a negative trait—because these are the things that make us who we are and should be embraced.”

Jessica McCarthy, PhD, Department of Surgical Sciences, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Wisconsin-Madison

‘Anxiety immediately melted away’
En route to these achievements, it was clear to McCarthy that she was atypical among her peers—yet she persevered.

“I am a little bit different because I am an openly gay woman, and certainly there are not many openly gay orthopedic surgeons. I will say that there are quite a few in the veterinary world which is actually a very accepting world,” she notes. “I’m very lucky because where I work now, being gay isn’t considered ‘different’ anymore. I don’t feel different from my peers and they don’t view me as different.”

But that wasn’t always the case.

“When I was an intern, I was actually afraid to be openly gay because no one else in my position or among the mentors or leadership were gay, and I just didn’t want anything about me to possibly be seen as a negative or as ‘weird.’ I wanted a residency so I decided to hide this part of myself in order to get one,” says McCarthy.

She ultimately landed a residency at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where she represented the country as a member of the women’s national lacrosse team at the 2017 Women’s World Cup.

“The University of Edinburgh is one of the most open-minded and inclusive universities I’ve worked at. All that anxiety immediately melted away; I was able to be out and be myself,” McCarthy says. “I think that definitely allowed me to develop better working relationships with my colleagues because I wasn’t hiding a part of myself. Because of my own experience, I truly don’t want anyone else to ever have to feel that their sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability, etc, is viewed as a negative trait—because these are the things that make us who we are and should be embraced.”

Today, McCarthy sometimes asks herself, “Why should that have mattered to me? Why was I thinking about that kind of thing to try and stay on a level playing field?” But she also knows that answer: The people who hold the keys to one’s advancement sometimes make decisions based on their own, often unconscious, biases rather than facts or one’s qualifications.

“I actually knew a guy who didn’t get a residency because he had a pierced ear. The person who interviewed him didn’t think men should have their ears pierced,” McCarthy says. “So, hearing stories like that can make you afraid to be yourself—which isn’t right—because one thing leads to another and this kind of thing can have a severe impact on a person who doesn’t have a supportive group of friends or a family to lean on when they hit a barrier.”

“When you’re eventually in the position to help others, take those opportunities because that’s how we grew in this profession and make it better.”

Jessica McCarthy, PhD, Department of Surgical Sciences, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Paying it forward
Case in point: Bristol University soft-tissue surgeon Ed Friend made an enormous impact on McCarthy by taking her under his wing, telling her who she needed to connect with, and being her step-by-step guide to a career in veterinary orthopedic surgery. And he only asked for one thing in return: that she pay it forward by doing the same for others when she was in a position to help. 

From an officer AO Access Officer and Faculty Selection Process Task Force perspective, breaking down barriers begins with what she calls “simple stuff,” like writing job or position postings incorporating certain types of words that appeal to a broader range of potential applicants.

“They call it communal language—so words like loyalty, for example, could lead more women to apply for a position. Studies show that women usually will not apply for a position unless they meet all of the selection criteria, whereas men will apply even if they meet only 30 percent of the criteria,” McCarthy says. “Just changing the wording and how we promote positions can have a big impact on who applies and, in turn, will hopefully improve diversity.”

McCarthy’s advice for people facing barriers to advancement is simple.

“Number one: Never give up—and try to find a mentor who can help you. So, ask for help: Send that e-mail. Walk up to someone at a conference and ask that person to be your mentor,” she says. “And when you’re eventually in the position to help others, take those opportunities because that’s how we grew in this profession and make it better.”