Women in dentistry: Not done yet

Dr. Kathleen T. O’Loughlin, ADA executive director

How do you describe the average dentist in America?

A paper written in the 1940s that was co-authored by Dr. Harold Hillenbrand, a former executive director of the American Dental Association, made an attempt:

The average dentist in the United States is a white male who is engaged in private practice. He is married, has 2.4 children, a fairly well-worn Chevrolet and a home about which the bank still has something to say…. His feet, very often, hurt him except after thirty-six holes of golf when they feel fine because of the exercise….

All in all, the average dentist and private practitioner is a pretty good American in a casual sort of way. He is a pretty good fisherman, shoots a respectable game of golf, likes a nip or two on occasion, and smokes more cigarettes than are good for him. He’s going to quit smoking and drinking ‘pretty soon,’ but never does.

It is this very human bundle of contradictions, superstitions, likes, dislikes, failings and virtues that we call the average American dentist in private practice.

This colorful, if incomplete, description of the average dentist may have been accurate in the 1940s, and likely for many decades after that, but no part of this assessment of old rings true today, except perhaps the last line of it. While I enjoy thirty-six holes of “exercise” as much as the next dentist, it’s about time to let go of the idea that there is such a thing as an “average” dentist in America.

And that’s OK.

Different is good. Diverse perspectives make us stronger, and that’s one of the reasons we should strive to embrace and promote diversity and inclusion at all levels of our Association. Best practice leadership standards across a variety of industries suggest that an organization’s leadership and governance composition should reflect the varied constituents it serves. There is an abundance of well-done business research that strongly suggests that increasing diversity enhances team performance in very measureable ways.

Many dentists and dental students understand this. We need our associations as a whole to understand this, too. We have to first acknowledge—all of us—that we have the ongoing need to build and sustain a truly diverse and inclusive environment.

I speak from firsthand experience.

To read the full story by ADA Executive Director Kathleen T O’Loughlin on LinkedIn, click here.

2 comments

  • clelia ilacqua dds

    It is nice to talk about diversity. I am a female dentist who has been working in the field since 1978 when I graduated from dental school. I entered dental school never realizing it was an all male (white male) environment. How stupid of me! I was just fascinated by the material and wanted to pursue my interest. I had no image of what an “average” dentist was.
    At first, I worked for someone else. There were no other options and my first colleague (white male boss) only asked me to come over to his office because he had “never seen a lady dentist before”. When I assured him that I had only one head, not three, we laughed about it and he hired me.
    After several associate-ships with white male dentists, I decided that if they could do this (private practice), I certainly could do it. So, borrowing all we had and then some, I set up my own office.
    It was unusual to see a solo female dentist and that made me unique in the market. I did well and practiced solo for over twenty years.
    I am now semi-retired having sold my practice to a young Indian doctor (the new average-diversity). I work for two different white male associates part time. I am also an attending at a local hospital and every year we see a new batch of recruits, all young and enthusiastic. They come from all over, white, black, Asian, male and female; truly diverse.
    I have loved working in dentistry and hope to continue for many more years.

  • The white male dental establishment is toast.

    It is now economically impossible for a dentist to make a good living, regardless of gender, while prividung a preventive and conservative operative dentistry based practice.

    We must now sell sell sell. Cosmetic dentistry… Implants… Whatever it takes.. CT scans instead of bite wings, plastics with Lord-only-knows-what’s-in-them instead of 50 year amalgams… it’s a new world. We old boys love the ladies In our profession but it wasn’t the airplanes that killed King King DDS… It was big insurance and the FTC’s loving embrace of it. After all, dentistry is just like selling tires, right?

    Unfortunately it’s also choking the careers of young dentists of both genders.

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