The Changing Role of Women in Dentistry

The role of women in dentistry has changed a lot in recent years, as the anecdote shows.

I remember traveling with a DPR sales rep, on a visit to a potential advertiser. The older gentleman working as a marketing manager had been around the dental industry for much of his working life. I was explaining DPR’s editorial mission to him and showed him the Women in Dentistry issue that we had recently published, explaining how it fit the plans. Products are of no use if they are not appreciated by clinicians – and innovation is at its best and most powerful when it actually serves the purpose of making the life of a patient better. The women honored in that magazine were a group that were gaining increasing amounts of influence – not just in the dental practice, but also in the boardroom and the classroom.

The marketing manager was unimpressed. He asked me when the magazine would be publishing an issue to recognize the top men in the field of dentistry. I joked that every other issue that we publish, all year-round, is devoted to men. Really, that’s the truth. He didn’t laugh, or take the point. This story wasn’t from decades ago, either – it happened just six years ago.

Things have changed slightly since then, but probably not enough. There is some amazing work being done to support and recognize women in dentistry and to mentor those trying to break into the field. The number of women working in practices is increasing, and the number of manufacturers that recognize the power of women is growing stronger. There are more women working in the periphery of dentistry too – women serving as sales reps, customer service workers, and educators. Women are taking more of a place in the field – thanks in part to the work done by the American Association of Women in Dentistry.

Things are changing – slowly. There is a long way to go before we could claim anything approaching parity. Women in dentistry are still thought of as a monolithic demographic. Women don’t all have the same professional goals, they don’t face the same problems, and they don’t have the same concerns. We can discuss the way that women in the field feel – but that would be just as inefficient as discussing the way that men in the field feel. Not all male dentists are the same either. For change to happen, we need to appreciate that women are individuals.

DPR published its first Top 25 Women in Dentistry to honor the inspirational, accomplished and wonderful people in the field. Each person in the first issue has been thankful for their inclusion. Year after year the industry produces new innovations and proves that there are so many more women in the field that need respect. We will continue to honor the amazing women in the field of dentistry – whichever aspect of the field they are working on, hopefully for a long time to come.

How Women Dentists are True Pioneers in the Field of Dentistry

Dentistry has evolved significantly from the days of yore when oral hygiene was another service offered by your local barber. Today there are a total of eight specialties in the dentistry profession — the oral pathologist, orthodontist, prosthodontist, periodontist, endodontist, pediatric dentist, general dentist and oral surgeon –each with a very specific role in maintaining healthy dentition.

Dental hygienists, on the other hand, are tasked with preventing the various diseases common to the oral cavity. They typically provide education for patients and other services like calculus removal, which works to keep the periodontium, or gums, healthy.

Oral health care in the USA is entirely dependent on these professionals. Traditionally, dentistry was an industry with a largely male population. Things have changed here too and today’s workforce is now largely female and has evolved more than ever.

Lucy Hobbs Taylor was the first woman in America to become a dentist and open a clinic. The tale involves covert studies and secrecy because back in 1865, times were very different and the ambitious Ms. Taylor had been denied entry into the Eclectic College of Medicine for reasons of gender.

Feeling a bit dejected but undaunted, this pioneer of dentistry completed her dental training under the tutelage of the dean at Ohio College of Dental Surgery. This was all done in private and Lucy Hobbs Taylor received no degree for her efforts.

Her next step was to enter an apprenticeship with a male dentist, after which she felt the confidence and courage to be the first woman in America to open a dental practice. This all happened in the city of Cincinnati, Ohio in 1861.

The practice was a success, so much so that the Iowa State Dental Society granted Lucy Hobbs Taylor membership in 1865, stating that “the dental practice had nothing opposed to the instincts of women.” The following year the Ohio College of Dental Surgery gave her a degree as a dentist.

Lucy Hobbs Taylor was a powerful woman with courage and fortitude. She was a well-known suffragist and an educator, who went on to train her husband in dentistry. By the early 1900’s, more than 1,000 women were professionals practicing in the dental industry.

A Connecticut dentist named Dr. Albert C. Fones was the first to introduce the ideas of proper oral hygiene as the root solution to preventing diseases. He published an important guide to better hygiene called “Mouth Hygiene: a course of instruction for dental hygienists”. This book contains a detailed guide to maintaining what he referred to as “extreme hygiene”. His cousin became the first dental hygienist after he trained her in the detailed techniques of plaque and calculus removal.

The mainstream dentistry branch was very opposed to the notion, but Dr. Fones was undeterred and opened up a school for dental hygienists in the carriage shed behind his practice. Here he trained both men and women and in 1914, 27 women graduated from Dr. Fones’ dental hygiene school.

Today there are roughly:

  • There are currently 185,000 dental hygienists in the US
  • There are also 186,000 dentists practicing in the US
  • 96% of dental hygienists are female
  • 47% of dentists are female.
  • That means there are 264,000 women, from a total of 373,000 dental care providers

While we can’t say for sure what these statistics fully implicate, some of the trends we see in dentistry are pretty obvious.

  • Male practitioners will be more likely to open their own practices while women tend to work with others.
  • Women hold less prominent positions in the fields of organized dentistry than men do
  • Salaries are generally higher for male practitioners than their female counterparts.
  • Women tend to work fewer hours — Only 75% of female dentists work full-time. 89% of male’s dentists are full-time.
  • Women are often viewed as more empathetic than men in their practice

Women are also taking roles of greater leadership throughout the dental profession. There are women presidents in the American Academy of Periodontology, American Dental Assistants Association the American Academy for Oral Systemic Health. Actually, all the board members of the ADAA are all female.

“Today’s generation of female dentists will be the essential link that fully explores the many challenges being faced by women pioneering their specific brands of practicing dentistry.” Dr. Jacqui continues to say, “… the ultimate goals will be for women to effectively integrate the differences between the feminine and masculine practice into a single practice based on top-quality relations and holistic solutions. This will be another step to a grander richer tradition that enhances the capacities of men and women as healers.” Dr. Jacqui specializes in dental crowns in Jacksonville. She’s not only an exceptional female dentist who has been practicing in the field for over 30 years. She has also passed on her dental legacy to her son.

Women also make an important position in the associated industry of Public Health Dentistry. A stunning 14% of all presidents in the Association for Public Health Dentistry were female. More and more articles found in the Journal of Public Health are also being authored by female experts.

While no one can be sure what the effects of Feminization are, I believe it is a tenderness and compassion that is inherent in many, if not most women, that truly provides value to the dentist’s profession. Current trends in treatments and solutions tend to favor holistic remedies as this is not only a more effective set of solutions but also reduces costs.

Many people I have met, myself included, have commented on the different approaches women take to their practice. While the quality of care seems to have no relation to the gender of the practitioner, there are some things to be said in about the administration of care. Women tend to care less about the process than the execution of the process. This is something patients can feel and appreciate.

Overcoming Challenges for Females in the Dental Industry

In 1978, Dr. Charriet Selleen studied dentistry. During her first few years, she was often told that she was the first female dentist the patient had ever heard of. During that time, there were not that many women. In fact, approximately 20 percent of Dr. Selleen’s class were women, which was considered an extremely high percentage of female students.

In 1978, approximately 16 percent of dental students were females, according to the unpublished Survey of Dental Practices in 2014 by the ADA Health Policy Institute. In the 1960s, the number of female dental students was even lower with only a little over 1 percent of students being female. By the year 2014, the number of female dental student climbed to nearly 48 percent. The president of the American Association of Women Dentists, Dr. Marrie Muldoon, stated that both society and dentistry have advanced over the years.

Although there are still challenges facing female dentists, such as ergonomics, wage differences and a lack of representation in both educational and leadership roles, positive changes are on the horizon as more women embrace the profession. Thirty years ago, women were faced with vehement comments like “You are taking a job away from a man”, “You did pretty well for a girl”, etc. Luckily these prejudices are finally starting to change.

Another American Association of Women Dentists past president, Dr. Sheri Doniger, said that when she was a dental student in the 1980s, she was told that women were taking the place of men in the field. Over the years, more women have entered the dental profession and these disparaging comments have been greatly reduced.

Today, women have more options when it comes to dentistry. Prejudices are still present; however, they have been greatly reduced. Dr. Selleen stated that there is still a long road ahead to total equality among men and women in the dental field. The culture is beginning to change and more and more people are becoming more accepting of females in dentistry.

At last year’s American Association of Women Dentists held in Washington D.C., Dr. Muldoon talked to several students and was surprised at some of the stories that these women shared with her. Female dentists still report hearing sexist comments about women dentists. For example, many people imply that female dentists do not work full time. The same problems that faced female dentistry students and female dentists in the 1980s are still causing trouble for female dentists today. Change takes time; however, there are indications that perceptions of women in dentistry are still evolving.

One way to influence change is for women to seek out leadership roles in the dental industry. The American Dental Association President, Sharol Summers, reports that there is a great need for female mentors and leaders. Sharol Summers is the fourth woman to ever be elected as the ADA president, following Drs. Geraldine T. Morrow (1991-1992), Kathleen S. Roth (2006-2007) and Maxine Feinberg (2014-2014).

Dr. Summers stated that many women have trouble following traditional networking methods due to home and family responsibilities and commitments. The answer is to find new and better ways to network. There are several seminars and programs that are currently addressing these needs in national, state and local dental societies.

Dr. Muldoon said the American Association of Women Dentists works to ensure that women dentists are asked to speak at events throughout the United States. Additionally, she seeks to bring back a program that encourages women to strive to become leaders and speakers for the dental community.

She stated that although almost half of the student in dental schools are female, women are not equally represented when it comes to professors teaching dentistry, continuing education speakers or professor who are offered tenured positions. Women are not offered organized dentistry leadership roles the same way men are. Dr. Muldoon said that she understands that this is not just a problem in dentistry but a problem across all careers. She stated there are fewer female lawmakers in Congress and female movie stars typically earn less than male movie stars do.

Although there is still a lot to do, progress is occurring. When Dr. Donigerfirst began practicing dentistry, she could not get a loan. The banks told her that either her husband or her father would need to co-sign the loan with her. Now, lenders seek out women, especially female dentist because they are considered a really good risk for lenders.

From syringes to dental chairs, dental equipment companies are finally embracing women in the dental field and are beginning to make ergonomic equipment specially designed for women. Dr. Muldoon stated that for years women had no other choice than using equipment that was too bulky or too large for women. Men’s hands are typically larger and can cause issues with unisex equipment. The rise of female dentists has resulted in an awareness for appropriate and ergonomically designed pieces for females.

Dr. Selleen wrote for the ADA news about the unveiling of a new Barbie called, the Dentist Barbie doll in 1998. She stated that in the real world, female dentists are not making as much as their male counterparts. Marriage, children, the need to move for their husbands’ careers and more have resulted in lower wages for men. However, Barbie is always an optimist. Dr. Selleen ended her piece by asking if the public’s view of females in the dental profession are likely to change. It has been 17 years since Dr. Selleen’s editorial piece was printed. Dr. Selleen still says the answer to her question is not clear-cut. Women still earn less than men. In fact, the American Dental Association reported that male private practice dentists earned 38 percent more than their female counterparts in their Health Policy Institute survey in 2014.

There are more questions than answers because many women have private practices. This means that institutions and companies cannot be blamed for income disparities when many female dentists are self-employed. The practice choices of women are their own responsibility.

Different ethnicities, races, and genders are now providing dental care. As more women step into the role of mentors for other dentists as well as their patients, things will continue to progress. Women must share their experiences with the latest generation of female dentists in order to help encourage change. Female dentists want to know how having children will affect their careers, and how to embrace other changes in their lives while still practicing dentistry full time.

Dr. Summers said that dentistry is great for females because it allows women the opportunity to blend their dental practice with their family. As more and more women enter the field and take on mentorship roles, a paradigm shift will happen. When women begin helping women climb the ladder to equality change will occur. This means women need to seek out opportunities to network with other female dentists, seek out leadership opportunities and develop lasting changes in the dental field. When women band together, real change is possible.

Why Women Are Choosing Dentistry

Dentistry as a Career for Women

Many women, historically and today, are choosing dentistry because it is such an intellectually challenging, and also rewarding, profession. It is one that offers a good standard of living for anyone who pursues it – which makes it ideal for women who are coping with life changes such as divorce or the death of their spouse. It also offers flexibility – women can set their own hours when they manage a practice.

Women entering the profession get empowered by their mentors, and are able to overcome the challenges of working in a field which is still slightly male dominated – although those statistics are changing.

Women have the choice of some great career paths – and medicine and dentistry are ones that are just really opening up for them. In the 19th century, it was considered inappropriate for women to join those fields – because they should not be exposed to the indelicacies of the human body. Men were reluctant to view women as equals, but the deans of two major dental colleges pioneered the idea of women getting into dentistry, and it was seen as a plus that women would join the field – because their nurturing qualities allowed them to treat children and women.

Now, women perform well in the field. They are self-reliant, and they have fought opposition to make it into the field. They are, in many ways, elevating the profession by entering into it, and offer good service to the people they treat.