Wonder women of dentistry: Female dentists go from rarity to building profession, communities up
Editor’s note: This is the second article in an ADA News series examining the changing demographics and increasing diversity in dentistry.
For every dollar a male dentist makes, women, on average, earn 65 cents. While 13 cents of that gap is accounted for by things like differences in experience levels, specialty and hours worked, there still remains 22 cents of earnings differences that remain “unexplained.” Female dentists made up 32% of the workforce in 2018 but the percentage women in leadership positions in organized dentistry fall short of that, according to ADA data.
Gaps in wages and leadership representation — and the need and ways to close them — were among the subjects Dr. Kathleen T. O’Loughlin, ADA executive director, discussed March 7 at this year’s Women’s Executive Forum, an annual assembly of female association CEOs and emerging leaders designed to facilitate candid conversations around specific issues, challenges and opportunities. Dr. O’Loughlin served as the event’s keynote speaker.
In recognition of her achievements and leadership as the first female executive director of the ADA, Dr. O’Loughlin was also the recipient of the Association Forum’s 2019 Woman of Influence award.
“She has broken down barriers and paved the way for future generations of women to believe that they can accomplish the previously unimaginable,” said Michelle Mason, Association Forum president and CEO.
“Over the course of my career, it’s been gratifying to see the growth of both women dentists and women leaders,” Dr. O’Loughlin said. “We’re not done yet, and I’m excited to work with the next generation of women.”
While female dentists continue to face unique challenges in the profession, they have found and continue to find opportunities to move dentistry forward, contributing in various fields including academia, science and research, organized dentistry and advocacy.
Moving the profession forward
Forty years ago, only 7% of dental school graduates in the U.S. were women. In 2017, according to the ADA Health Policy Institute, that percentage was up to 49%.
The increasing number of women pursuing dentistry is shifting the demographics in various fields in the profession.
At the Association Forum event, Dr. O’Loughlin showed how the number of women in dental leadership continues to grow. Women dentists today make up 18% of dental school deans and 28% of state dental society presidents.
In the latest ADA 10 Under 10 awards, which recognize new dentists who are demonstrating excellence early on their careers, six of the 10 recipients were women. These include Dr. Antonina Capurro, who is serving as the Nevada State Dental Health Officer; Dr. Courtney Burrill, a U.S. Air Force veteran who initiated the University of Alaska’s pre-dental program; Dr. Amanda Fitzpatrick, who works with her county health department to conduct annual school screenings and fluoride treatments in eight area schools in La Plata, Missouri; Dr. Onika Patel, who testified before the Arizona state legislature on new dentists’ perspectives on dental therapy; and Danielle Riordan, who chairs the Missouri Dental Association Foundation Board.
“I could name, without even looking online, another 20 or more who are driving the profession forward today,” said Dr. Mary Martin, past president of the American Association of Women Dentists.
There’s Dr. Winifred J. Booker, founder of BrushTime Products, Inc., which make child-friendly dental hygiene products. There’s Dr. Dushanka Kleinman, a University of Maryland associate dean for research, whose research has been connecting oral health’s role in a person’s overall health for decades. There’s Dr. Theresa S. Gonzales, executive director of American College of Dentists, who retired with the rank of colonel in the United States Army.
Dr. Martin believes dentistry continues to be male-dominated and that dental equipment is largely made for male bodies and dental publication ads often target a more male audience. However, the growing number of women entering and taking on leadership roles in the profession continues to change the landscape, Dr. Martin said.
Dr. Martin said one way for women dentists to contribute to the profession is to become a mentor.
“The greatest gift women leaders can give to other women is to take them under their wing,” she said. “My biggest guidance to give young women dentists is that every time you take a step up, turn around and see who you can bring up with you.”
Start with community service
Until this past year, Dr. Twana Duncan was the only dentist in Pushmataha County, Oklahoma, caring for patients in one of the poorest areas in the state.
“Our patient population is 68% below poverty level,” she said. “Where I live and our two neighboring counties, Choctaw and McCurtain, are the lowest in graduation rates, the highest in drug use, teen pregnancy, incarcerated parents and much more.”
Dr. Duncan’s work in and out of her dental practice is among the often-unheralded contributions of women dentists today, said Dr. Martin. Dr. Duncan was one of the many names that came to Dr. Martin’s mind when asked about women dentists making a mark in the profession today.
For 25 years, Dr. Duncan has made it a mission for her dental practice team to be ingrained in the fabric of the community and as a way to improve the lives of her patients and neighbors. Whether it’s through sponsoring activities at over 25 schools in the area, donating school supplies and books through the FirstBook program, working in the concession stands so the parents can watch their children’s band performance and football games or educating young girls about careers they can pursue, Dr. Duncan and her staff are there.
“I want to give the easy answer and say, ‘Because giving back starts at home,'” Dr. Duncan said on why her dental practice has decided to extend its service into larger community. “While that is true, the truth is that our rural communities are suffering. At what point do we stand back and say, ‘OK, these are our problems, what are our solutions?'”
The school systems are the best place to start, said Dr. Duncan. These include volunteering for a reading program, going to schools during dental health month, sponsoring a safe-after-prom party, hosting a career day, sending snacks when [students] have field trips or rewarding for math and reading programs, judging science fairs, sponsoring ball teams, giving scholarships to college and trade school bound high school graduates.
Women dentists, Dr. Martin said, can make their impact by improving their communities.
“The most important advice I can offer [to women dentists] is to show up, be present in your community, be a part of the conversation, be the person you want children to look up to,” said Dr. Duncan. “Women have brought a new level of compassion to dentistry. Women in the industry are also motivated to work together and build each other up because for a time, there were not many of us in dentistry.”