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Women in dentistry see progress, continued challenges

January 18, 2016

By Kimber Solana

Photo of Dr. Seldin
Dr. Seldin
When Dr. Harriet Seldin studied dentistry in 1978, she said it wasn’t uncommon for a patient to tell her she was the first woman dentist he or she has seen.

“I look back at that time, and I’m amazed at how few of us there were,” said Dr. Seldin, of San Diego. “In my class, it was about 20 percent women, and that was considered very high.”

In 1978, 15.9 percent of first-year dental students were women, according to the ADA Health Policy Institute, unpublished 2014 findings from the Survey of Dental Practice.

In 2014, it was 47.7 percent. Just a decade before Dr. Seldin graduated, only 1.1 percent of dental students were female in 1968.

“Our profession, and society, has come a long way,” said Dr. Mary Martin, president of the American Association of Women Dentists.

And while challenges remain for women dentists — addressing the lack of representation in leadership roles and education, improving ergonomics, closing a wage gap — Dr. Seldin and others say the rise in number of women in the profession has brought, and continues to bring, a number of positive changes.

Slowly but surely

Photo of Dr. Martin
Dr. Martin
Three decades ago, people didn’t hold back when they saw women entering dentistry, said Dr. Martin.

“I had a staff member tell me, ‘You know you’re taking the place of a man,’” she said. “After I treated a patient in an operative clinic, a different person told me, ‘That was pretty good for a girl.’”

She’s not the only one.

“We were told in dental school that we took the place of our male colleagues,” Dr. Sheri Doniger, AAWD past-president, said about her experiences in the early 1980s as a student. “I don’t think that happens anymore, at least I hope it doesn’t.”

Today, as women become more integrated in the profession of dentistry, the more it becomes the norm, said Dr. Seldin.

“It has gotten better in a sense. There are more options for women in dentistry. Culture and sensitivity has improved,” she said. “But there’s still a long way to go.”

During a discussion with women dental students at last year’s AAWD meeting at ADA 2015 in Washington, D.C., Dr. Martin said, some students shared stories that surprised her.

“They’re still getting snide comments about being women. People still imply they don’t work full time,” she said. “It’s frustrating. I faced these problems in the ‘80s, but it’s 2015. It may be like trying to turn an aircraft carrier: changes come slowly, but they’re happening.”

Photo of Dr. Doniger
Dr. Doniger
Need for more leaders

One idea to speed up changes is for women to continue to seek leadership roles.

“There is still a need for female dentist mentors and leadership development,” said ADA President Carol Gomez Summerhays, who became the fourth woman to be elected ADA president after Drs. Geraldine T. Morrow, 1991-92; Kathleen S. Roth, 2006-07; and Maxine Feinberg, 2014-15.

Dr. Summerhays added that women may not find the same appeal in traditional networking approaches because of home and family commitments and responsibilities.

“We have to find more opportunities for networking,” she said.

There are a growing number of programs and seminars geared toward addressing this need hosted by national, state and local dental societies, she said.

Dr. Martin said AAWD strives to have women dentists as speakers at events. In addition, she hopes to bring back a speakers bureau program this year to encourage more women to be speakers and leaders.

“The fact that women are nearly 50 percent in dental school but are not equally represented in the number of continuing education speakers, in the number of professors teaching in dental schools or offered tenure positions, in organized dentistry leadership roles, is an issue,” she said. “And I know it’s not just dentistry.”

Dr. Martin said women make up a small percentage of lawmakers in Congress, and female movie stars earn less than their male counterparts.

“There’s plenty of work left but progress is happening. When I first got started, I couldn’t get a loan,” said Dr. Doniger. “They wanted my father and my husband to co-sign. Today, contracts are screaming to get signed, especially for women dentists. We’re considered a really good risk.”

With ergonomics, dental equipment companies are finally figuring out that there’s a market to make tools designed for women, from syringes to chairs.

For decades, women dentists have had to use equipment often too large or too bulky for comfort.

“Men’s hands are just bigger,” Dr. Martin said. “The rise of number of women has definitely helped companies address this need.”

Photo of Dr. Summerhays
Dr. Summerhays

In 1998, Dr. Seldin wrote a “My View” for ADA News about the unveiling of a Dentist Barbie doll.

“In the real world Dr. Barbies aren’t doing as well as Dr. Kens in the financial reimbursement department. It’s all those marriages, moving for husbands’ careers, infertility treatments, children and underpaid associateships taking their toll on the down payment for the dream house,” she wrote. “Oh, well. Maybe things will change. Barbie is forever the optimist.”

She ended the editorial with a question: “As women become a larger proportion of the dental population, is the profession and public’s view of it likely to change?”

Seventeen years since her editorial, Dr. Seldin said the answer isn’t clear-cut.

“The income for women remains lower,” she said. According to the ADA’s Health Policy Institute survey, the median annual net income of male dentists in private practice in 2014 was 38 percent higher than that of women.

“There are still more questions than answers,” she said. “Many women dentists own private practices. We can’t blame some companies and institutions for income disparities when we are self-employed. Our practice choices are our own responsibility. It isn’t about the money. It is good that more dentists of different races, ethnicities — and gender — are providing care. We become mentors not just to other women dentists, but to our patients.”

Dr. Doniger agrees. She said it’s all about sharing your experiences and what you learned to the younger generation of women dentists.

“It’s so important to have a mentor, especially a woman as a mentor,” she said. “Women out there are asking, ‘What happens to my career when my kids are in high school or when they’re in college?’ Many of us have answers.”

When Dr. Martin started dental school, she said, she had a 7-year-old daughter; six years after she graduated, she had another child.

“It wasn’t easy but it can be done,” she said.

Despite these challenges, more women continue to pursue dentistry.

“Many women are attracted to dentistry because of the opportunities to blend family with dental practice,” Dr. Summerhays said.

And with that continued growth, there’s going to be a continued paradigm shift — and an opportunity to guide and help, Dr. Doniger said.

“It’s good to share,” she said. “My mentors’ comments to me was, ‘When you’re up the ladder, you have to help pull someone up with you.’”