The growing presence of women in dentistry

female dentist

As a high school senior, I had an opportunity to interview for a collegiate scholarship, during which I discussed my aspirations for a career in dentistry with an all-male panel of judges. I remember being asked, “Why don’t you want to be a dental hygienist or an assistant? Aren’t those the typical roles in dentistry for a female?”

I was taken aback. I was sure that it wasn’t their intention to instill self-doubt in a woman pursuing a career in a male-dominated industry. However, I couldn’t help but feel as if I was being relegated to another career, based strictly on traditional gender roles.

When I tell people that I’m in dental school, many automatically assume that I’m studying to become a dental hygienist. To that, I just smile and politely correct them by saying, “No, I am in a four-year DDS program.” However, this misconception comes as no surprise. A 2012-13 ADA Survey of Allied Dental Education found that a whopping 95.8% of dental hygiene students are women. Yet, every individual, male or female, has something unique to bring to the dental workforce. While dental hygienists are absolutely vital to the success of a well-run practice, I, like many of my female colleagues, simply chose to take a different career path.

A 2015 study published in the Journal of Oral Research and Review noted that women currently make up nearly half of all dental students and 25% of practicing dentists. In the past few decades alone, we’ve been increasingly integrated into leadership positions, from taking on prominent roles within organized dentistry to conducting cutting-edge research at leading academic institutions. Dental equipment manufacturers have taken notice of this shift and are now catering their designs toward women practitioners. Yet, despite the many women before me who have broken down societal barriers by diving head-first into such a demanding field, we are still underrepresented and underpaid compared to our male counterparts. It is evident that we still have a lot of work to do.

You might be wondering: what steps can we take towards reinforcing the image and reputation of women as quality health care providers? By definition, a gender role is a set of behaviors, attitudes and activities expected from males and females, based on societal norms. Here are some ways women can continue redefining traditional gender roles within our profession, simply by challenging the status quo.

  • Take on leadership roles – within your class, within your institution and within organized dentistry on a state and on a national level. Did you know that 2015-2016 ADA President Carol Summerhays is only the fourth woman to be elected ADA president? This demonstrates the need for more leadership development for females, especially at a local and state level.
  • Become mentors – behind every successful individual is a mentor who has helped hold the ladder as he or she has climbed to success. Organizations such as the American Association of Women Dentists (AAWD) can not only provide networking opportunities for mentors and mentees to come together, but also serve as a forum to discuss solutions for common issues that women face within dentistry.
  • Enter academics – influence and shape the minds of future generations of dentists. A 2010 study in the Journal of Dental Education noted that while the percentage of women represented in research and academia has increased in the past 22 years, we are still considered grossly underrepresented in the upper levels of our profession, such as in tenure-track full-time faculty positions. Increased representation in academia could pave the way to creating a more supportive environment for women to come.
  • Take an active role in organized dentistry – there is strength in numbers and our opinions matter, especially when it comes to issues that women dentists face. Let your voice be heard!

The question posed to me so many years ago is still imprinted in my mind, but I’ve since chosen to use it as a motivator. I believe that I can achieve whatever I put my mind to and the fact that I am a woman should not hold me back. More importantly, I want my female colleagues to feel empowered in the same way. I hope that we can continue to break down gendered stereotypes and work towards improving the culture within our profession to develop an atmosphere of mutual respect. It’s on us to play an active role in implementing this change and I invite all of my female colleagues to join me in facing this challenge head-on.

“Here’s to strong women: may we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.” – Unknown

~ Erica Recker, Iowa ’18, District 8 communications chair

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About Erica Recker

Erica is a third-year dental student at the University of Iowa College of Dentistry & Dental Clinics. She currently serves as chapter Website & Social Media Chair and as the District 8 Communications Chair. When she isn't living at school, she enjoys reading for fun, shopping, long Netflix binges and napping.

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