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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In 1978, approximately 16 percent of dental students were females, according to the unpublished Survey of Dental Practices in 2014 by the ADA Health Policy Institute.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.