In half of the 10 years Dr. Jennifer Enos served in the board of her local dental society in Arizona, she was — aside from staff — the only woman in the room.
“I started in dentistry in 1999 as an assistant,” she said. “I knew one female dentist and there was very little ethnic diversity.”
Fast forward to 2019.
When she volunteered at her local dental school’s Give Kids A Smile event in February, the diversity in the students was evident. And when attending her local dental society’s meetings, there are nearly as many female members as their male counterparts.
Come later this year, Dr. Enos will be one of 13 women serving as presidents in their state dental association — the most in the ADA’s 160-year history.
“The increase in diversity in our profession is fantastic,” said Dr. Enos, Arizona Dental Association president-elect. “It allows many opportunities for growth and innovation with the varying backgrounds and perspectives.”
Dr. Kristi M. Soileau, Louisiana Dental Association president-elect, added that variances in opinions and life stories only strengthens the core of any organization.
Drs. Enos and Soileau were among the women presidents-elects last year, along with Drs. Maria de L. Castellvi Armas, Colegio de Cirujanos Dentistas de Puerto Rico; Cathy L. Harris, Delaware State Dental Society; Evis Babo, Georgia Dental Association; Marlene Shevenell, Maryland State Dental Association; Janis B. Moriarty, Massachusetts Dental Society; Margaret Gingrich, Michigan Dental Association; Barbara B. Mauldin, Mississippi Dental Association; Lindsey D. Jackson, New Hampshire Dental Society; Sharon K. Parsons, Ohio Dental Association; Terryl A. Propper, Tennessee Dental Association; and Elizabeth C. Reynolds, Virginia Dental Association.
However, more needs to be done to ensure more women are pursuing leadership roles in the local, state and national levels of organized dentistry, Dr. Soileau said.
“With many dental graduating classes being half female, we encourage them to step up to the plate through service to the profession and to the public,” she said.
More women in dental school
Based on ADA data, there were a total of 81 women elected president at the state level from 1998 to 2014 — an average of 4.6 a year. Until this year, 2012 saw the most women serving as presidents-elect with 12. Three years prior, in 2009, there was only one.
“I am thrilled to hear that there will be 13 female presidents this year,” said Dr. Janis Moriarty, Massachusetts Dental Society president-elect. “And I expect that number to continue to rise [in the coming years].”
According to the ADA Health Policy Institute, 49 percent of U.S. dental school graduates in 2017 were women. That’s up from 37 percent in 1997. Forty years ago, only 7 percent of graduates were women.
The increasing number of women pursuing dentistry is shifting the demographic makeup of the dental workforce.
In 2018, 32 percent of all dentists were women, up from 16 percent in 2001.
By 2037, female dentists are expected to make up 46 percent of the dental workforce, according to HPI data. At Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, the graduating classes of 2019 and 2020 are anticipated to be 58 percent female.
“However, our leadership doesn’t match those percentages,” Dr. Moriarty said. “People want to see people that look like themselves in leadership role.”
More women leaders can also continue to shine a spotlight on issues unique to women, including motherhood and the gender wage gap.
According to HPI data on median net income of general practitioner dentists in private practice, female dentists earned $140,000 in 2017, compare to $180,000 for their male counterparts. That gap has closed somewhat. According to an April 2017 article in The Journal of the American Dental Association, male dentists earned nearly twice as much as female dentists in 1990. Male dentists had an average income of $143,874; female dentists earned $65,744.
In her first year out of periodontal residency, Dr. Soileau was approached by two local dental leaders to become editor of the New Orleans Dental Association, so the current editor could move up to the presidency.
“I was immediately stricken with a passion for organized dentistry,” she said. “[However], had I not been approached by someone needing my help, I don’t know that I would have come forward on my own.”
For Dr. Enos, a dentist told her she should run as a class representative for the American Student Dental Association.
“From the first meeting, I saw the actual value of organized dentistry, in ASDA and the ADA,” she said. “I was hooked and have been involved since.”
Drs. Soileau’s and Enos’ experiences underscore a simple solution in diversifying leadership in organized dentistry: just ask.
“It is truly as simple as that,” she said. “I always try to remember that we have to ask.”
Dr. Soileau said women leaders need to do their part in recruiting newer female graduates into organized dentistry through various professional and social events, considering that the number of women becoming ADA members are not as high as that of their male counterpart upon graduation.
There is no question that female practitioners can be great leaders, Dr. Moriarty, a graduate of the 2017-18 ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership.
“By definition, we are expert multi-taskers, just ask anyone who has kids,” she said.
Dr. Moriarty said Massachusetts had created a Guest Board Member program over 15 years ago, giving members board experience (with all the privileges except for voting). She was part of the inaugural class. By 2006, she was elected as one of 13 trustees of the Massachusetts Dental Society.
“We must continue to cultivate, encourage and support women in leadership roles as the number of women dentists continues to increase,” Dr. Moriarty said.
Diversity in leadership only has benefits to the greater membership of an organization, Dr. Soileau said.
“As more women graduate and enter the field, their particular needs, such as balancing a career and family, are often understood by other women who have been in similar positions of duress,” she said.
Dr. Enos said there’s a multitude of reasons why women should pursue leadership roles in organized dentistry, including giving back to the profession through advocacy and improving public health.
“Truthfully though, I think they should do it to be selfish,” Dr. Enos said. “Seriously, the people you meet — the other amazingly talented, smart and strong women and men who really care — that you get the privilege to develop friendships with are truly the best people to be found anywhere.”
In addition, the opportunity to gain perspective and experience, along with meeting with legislators, participating in volunteer events and attending member events, are invaluable, Dr. Enos said.
“And ultimately, there’s the opportunity to continue to learn and grow,” she said. “I hope more women continue to take the opportunities.”
Editor’s note: This is the first article in an ADA News series examining the changing demographics and increasing diversity in dentistry.