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Research shows female dentists still make up only a small percentage of the profession. But that's changing.
The times are indeed changing where the face of dentistry is concerned.
According to The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, there were 58,632 professionally active female dentists in the US at the start of 2016, or 28% of the total.
If that doesn’t sound significant, consider that before the 1970s, according to the Sindecuse Museum at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry, less than 3.3% of American dentists were women.
And, that 28% is likely to increase dramatically in the coming years. According to the ADA Health Policy Institute, 15.9% of first-year dental students were women in 1978. By 2014 the percentage was 47.7%. In addition, the Sindecuse Museum reports that women currently make up nearly half of all dental students.
“Our school enrollment has been 50-50 for probably at least 15 years,” says Laurie McCauley, DDS, MS, PhD, dean of the University of Michigan School of Dentistry.
What has brought about this gender shift, and what does this mean for dentistry going forward?
An article on the Spirit of Caring website indicates two main reasons for the gender shift: the women’s liberation and civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s which resulted in federal legislation to fund grants and encourage increasing enrollments of women in professional health schools; and the impact of birth control opening the doors for women to choose professional careers.
But McCauley says there’s another reason: lifestyle.
“There have been publications looking at the motivation to go into dentistry in general,” McCauley says. “And in the US, one of the top items that’s selected as a driver to choose a career in dentistry is that dentistry provides time for family life. And it could be that women may choose that as a motivation to select dentistry more than men do.”
The numbers tend to bear that out. The ADA’s “Distribution of Dentists in the US by Region and State, 2009” report, 5.1% of new private practice male dentists are part-time compared with 14% that are female—nearly three times the amount.
“There is also data out there that suggests that women are less likely to own their practice than men,” McCauley says. “It’s not a dramatic difference, but there is a tendency for [women] to be more likely to be in a team practice setting.”
Approach to Care, Leadership
The gender shift is also impacting dental practices both directly and indirectly, and in particular where patient perception is concerned.
For example, study results published in the Journal of the American Dental Association reveal that 31% of respondents believe that leadership is related to being a good leader in their own practices, and providing the best care for their patients.
But the study also found that women’s leadership aspiration responses were higher than those of male dentists. In fact, one of the study’s authors, Marita Rohr Inglehart, Dr. phil. Habil., professor of dentistry at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry, noted that, based on study results, women might be more committed and determined to take a leadership role and break down any perceived barriers.
One of those perceived barriers could be in the form of patient care. Edita Outericka, DMD, of Dynamic Dental, has observed a trend where patients phone in for appointments and request women dentists.
“I have asked patients why they requested a woman, and their responses are consistent,” Outericka says. “They believe women are more gentle, compassionate, and have a better bedside manner. Of course, this is not the case. But this is what patients perceive.”
Outericka feels that the only challenge a woman dentist may face is within the relationship-building process. “Time off for family matters or working part-time could impair their ability to consistently see the same patients over and over again.”
But McCauley disagrees. She finds that there are more female physicians who are linking to their communities, developing more of a community presence, and giving back through organizing charity fundraisers.
“I don’t see women practicing less than 40 hours a week as a challenge,” she says.
McCauley says that patients are at the center of a dental practice, so if the growing ranks of female dentists want to succeed the focus should be on excellence in patient care.
“I think dentistry takes seriously its responsibility in providing patient-centered care,” she says. “And I think new graduates, if they focus on that, will be successful.”