Prior to 1980, few women attended dental school, and women comprised less than 3% of all dentists.1 When I attended dental school around 10 years later, roughly 30% of my class consisted of female students. Today, the dental school population is typically an even split of females and males, and female dentists now represent 27% of the industry.2
During the past few decades, there has been a significant increase in the number of women entering dentistry. But what effect has this growth had on leadership positions? Even in 2017, leadership of the dental profession remains largely male. Understanding the gender gap in dental leadership (and the workforce in general) has never been more important. Here’s why it’s time for the trend to start shifting.
Benefits for Patients
Diversity in leadership is critical for healthcare professionals. At its most basic level, a diverse leadership team means a healthcare organization will naturally have a greater understanding of the populations it serves. Not every population is the same, so an organization shouldn’t act in just one way either. Comprehending the unique values of differing patient populations allows for better triangulation of treatments, outcomes, and compliance.
Furthermore, dentistry is a profession where traditionally “feminine” traits, such as being nurturing, sensitive, and friendly, have high value. People often expect leaders to be cool, calm, authoritative, and dominant—all characteristics that can be perceived as commonly “masculine.” Yet great chairside manner and the ability to warmly guide patients through procedures are ultimately what patients want from their dentists.
Indeed, dentists of either gender could have all or none of these traits, but the availability of many different perspectives and personality traits provides opportunities for leaders to learn from one another. Dentists who are more naturally inclined to coolness or distance may find it instructive to see another approach from a dentist more inclined to warmth.
Benefits for Healthcare Organizations
Healthcare organizations that fail to diversify their leadership teams will also fail to recruit diverse providers. Whether it be diversity of gender, race, age, or cognition, people look for employers that can understand their needs and wants. A female dentist may pass on an opportunity if the organization doesn’t have visible females on the team who will understand her perspective.
The pattern then becomes cyclical, and damaging, for an organization. A lack of diverse leadership leads to a lack of diverse employees, which leads to a lack of understanding of diverse patient populations. The result? A small and potentially unsustainable patient base. Diversity of leadership allows an organization not only to survive, but to thrive.
Additionally, with the forthcoming mass retirement of baby boomer-era dentists and a demand that is projected to grow significantly, all 50 states will soon experience a shortage of dentists.3 To retain a sufficient number of dentists in the coming years, organizations must crack the code on attracting and retaining the female workforce to fill the deficit.
How to Recruit and Retain Women
Women dentists are becoming more prevalent and invaluable. But the ability to capitalize on their assets depends on the profession’s interests and ability to expand the necessary efforts and resources to support and develop women’s careers as the profession has done for men.
One of the most important ways an organization can cater more to women is with flexibility. Women tend to spend more time caregiving (up to 50% more than males), whether it’s for children or aging parents, and thus have more priorities to juggle.4 That’s why women are more likely to practice dentistry part–time (20% of female dentists versus 12% of males).2
When I first began leading clinician recruiting at DentalOne Partners, I encountered a bias against hiring part-timers. We needed a provider who could work 5 days each week, but many female dentists were unable to work a full week’s schedule due to a need to balance their professional and personal lives.
As a solution, I created overlapping clinician opportunities that allowed 2 part-time clinicians to share job responsibilities. With these new opportunities, females are granted the flexibility they need, and our organization has enhanced hours and coverage at the practice level.
Since I am a “priority mom” myself, meaning I have lots of different priorities, I could understand the need to alter schedules when one’s children are young. But if I hadn’t personally cared for a critically ill adult or toddler, I might not have understood exactly why this group requests the work schedule they do.
Instead, it was my familiarity with the female-centric perspective, as well as the many other females on the DentalOne Partners’ executive team, that helped us create an informed solution. Throughout my career, I have encountered issues missed simply due to a lack of knowledge, which is why it’s so important to have diverse leaders who can speak to all types of experiences and needs.
What Female Professionals Can Do
My biggest piece of advice for female dentists interested in the dental field, and in leadership positions specifically, is to be extremely diligent in researching opportunities. When you pick your position of employment, explore whether the organization has other female leaders.
Ask yourself if there is anyone at the top of the company who has been through what you have been through. If the organization hasn’t taken actionable steps to meet the female workforce need, it may not understand what you’re walking through in life. Look for female-centric companies with proven track records that can lead to a successful partnership on both sides.
Also, know your subject matter as well as you can, and don’t shy away. Look at successful women around you. In the words of one of my favorite female leaders, Nancy Kane, director of the Health Care Management Program at Harvard University, “Figure out who you are, and do more of it.”
Women have unlimited potential. Considering how the numbers of women in dentistry have grown since the late 1970s, female leadership in the profession has a bright future. But our future successes will require more than strength of numbers. We must commit to a concerted effort to advance a more representative number of women into top leadership positions across our profession and progress the industry in a positive direction for all.
1. Solomon E. The future of dentistry: dental economics. Dental Economics. March 19, 2015. Accessed September 7, 2017.
2. Diringer J, Phipps K, Carsel B. Critical Trends Affecting the Future of Dentistry: Assessing the Shifting Landscape. May 2013. Accessed September 7, 2017.
3. US Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, Bureau of Health Workforce, National Center for Health Workforce Analysis. National and State-Level Projections of Dentists and Dental Hygienists in the U.S., 2012-2025. Rockville, MD: US Department of Health and Human Services; 2015. Accessed September 7, 2017.
4. Family Caregiver Alliance, National Center on Caregiving. Caregiver statistics: demographics. Accessed September 7, 2017.
Dr. Roark serves as DentalOne Partners’ senior vice president and chief clinical officer responsible for overall clinical leadership, including enterprise-wide clinical strategic planning, developing and improving clinical protocols, researching new technologies and services, overseeing quality assurance, and providing professional development opportunities to clinical team members. She brings more than 18 years of private practice, nonprofit, and dental service organization (DSO) experience to DentalOne. In addition to owning a successful private practice in Massachusetts, she served as clinical officer at a major DSO and was formerly the director of general dentistry and associate professor at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She received a master’s degree in healthcare management from Harvard University and earned her DMD magna cum laude from the Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine at Boston University.