You can help close the gender gap in dentistry: Tips for new dentists

Dr. Kathy O’Loughlin, executive director of the American Dental Association

During my final year of dental school I was class president and pregnant with my first child, Stephen.

Labor began at 6:00 a.m. on the morning of graduation, and at 1:00 p.m. I walked onto the quadrangle at Tufts University and informed the Dean of Students that I wasn’t going to be able to give my class president’s speech. As my husband and I sped north to the hospital, my entire family—mother, six siblings and twenty nieces and nephews—headed south to attend my graduation. My mother accepted my doctorate on my behalf and had the nerve to declare, “That was the easiest degree I ever earned!”

I remember that happy, happy day. But I also remember the moment I realized I would be juggling a full-time career as a new dentist and a full-time job as a new mother, and it wasn’t long before I realized I would have to address the insidious intrusion of gender bias, too.

The increase in the number of women entering dental school has happened rapidly and represents a dramatic shift in the makeup of the dental workforce.

A lot has been written about the similarities and differences in how men and women approach business issues like strategy, risk-taking, management, and work-life balance, but as far as I can tell, the research shows that there aren’t many gaps that impact clinical performance or practice success over the course of a dentist’s career.

There are, however, a few well-documented gaps that exist in dentistry that sometimes result in disturbing outcomes, and while the reasons for the existence of those gaps are still under investigation, there are ways that you and I can work to close those gaps to build a more inclusive and equal profession.

Here are three gaps and how we can work to close them. These ideas, by the way, may apply to both male and female new dentists.

#1: The Earnings Gap

The Journal of the American Dental Association published an article in 2017 documenting that female dentists earn less over their careers than males. Spoiler alert: It’s not a small difference.

There are some simple ways to close this gap which you can practice immediately.

Negotiate your salary when you get that first, second, and perhaps third job on your way to ultimate practice ownership. Thoroughly read and negotiate the employment agreement, and get educated on what financial health looks like within a private practice, whether it’s a solo, large group, super large group, or a dental support organization practice. There is data out there about salaries, including from the American Dental Association, and some of this data includes average salary by geographic region.

Talk to your peers and mentors about what may be a reasonable expectation.

If you remember one thing: negotiate. Need some help getting started? Begin with these tips for submitting a counter offer.

#2: The Leadership Gap

According to a 2017 analysis by the American Dental Association, 21 percent of ADA officers and board members, 21 percent of the ADA House of Delegates, and 17% of state dental society presidents are women.

Meanwhile, women make up 28 percent of the profession and the number is growing rapidly due to the fact that 48 percent of dental school applicants and 49 percent of graduates are female.

The number of leadership positions held by women as compared to men is not reflective of the profession as a whole. What can be done to close this gap?

First, acknowledge that leadership skills and self-awareness are learned, not inherited, and focus on building those skills. Leadership development programs aimed at women exist in many dental schools, and programs such as state society leadership programs like the ones in Oklahoma, Ohio, and Michigan, to name a few, provide training in the art of leading others to achieve common goals.

Advanced degrees such as a Master’s in business or health care management provide excellent leadership development that can pay big dividends whether you own your practice or are an employee dentist.

The ADA offers the Institute for Diversity in Leadership, a free year-long program (including travel expenses) available by application to all licensed, practicing dentists—regardless of ADA membership—who belong to racial, ethnic and/or gender backgrounds that have been traditionally underrepresented in leadership roles. Applications for 2018 are due March 16.

In short: Focus on developing your leadership skills.

#3: The Family Behaviors Gap

Women need flexible work arrangements that enable child bearing and child raising.

In medicine, a phenomenon known as “maternity bias” describes how a female physician’s ability to take on demanding specialties such as surgery or hospital administration diminishes when she has children. So, until men can have babies, women need to have the ability to adjust their professional work schedule to accommodate childbirth, ailing parents, and sick kids. Men need the flexibility, too, so that the burden of family obligations don’t disproportionately fall on women.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for families. My solution is to make high-quality and affordable daycare and elder care available, along with a supportive environment at work. I also need — and have found — a partner that accepts 50 percent of the responsibility for child care and elder care, housework, meal preparation and family organizing.

Have this conversation with your spouse, partner, supervisor and team. It’s impossible to change the norms of family behavior without challenging the status quo.

Need help getting started? The ADA has help for you – call me, I mean it. We have your back.

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