Women Dentists Grow in Influence, But Pay Lags

A broad review of dental workforce data shows women dentists are growing in number and influence, but their pay remains stubbornly behind that of their male counterparts.

The “feminization of dentistry”, as one writer put, has been increasing over the last 40 years. Women are closing in on becoming the majority in dental school classes, growing in numbers on dental school faculties, and increasingly behind the dental chair in private practices. The rise of women dentists is part of an international trend, and in the US, female doctors of dental surgery are keeping pace in terms of increasing numbers with their sister professionals, female lawyers and physicians. Yet, women dentists, like women physicians and attorneys, in most cases still haven’t found equality in earnings.

It all started with Lucy Hobbs Taylor who in 1866 became the first American woman to earn a dental degree. Up until the 1980s, a female DDS was still something of a rarity, less than 3% of all dentists in 1980, according to Dental Economics. Over the last 15 years, the increase in the number of women dentists in the US has been slow and steady, American Dental Association statistics show.

These numbers parallel the rise of women dentists in countries such as England and Canada, but fall behind in overall percentages.

*Professionally active **Dentists with National Health Service Activity

Dental school classes with an increasing proportion of female students will accelerate the trend toward a growing percentage of female dentists (see charts below), according to the Journal of Dental Education. The same article reported that in 2013 there were 22 dental schools where the majority of new first-year students were women, two that had a 50-50 split. One unnamed school had an entering class where 72.5% of the new students were women in the 2012-2013 academic year.

Like their counterparts in law and medicine, women dentists also have made their mark in obtaining leadership positions in industry associations and faculty positions at dental schools (see infographic below).

One the dental profession's attractions for women may be the opportunity to work part time. The dental industry perhaps presents less resistance than others to the part-timers given the significant number of both male female dentists who work less than full time. Thirty hours a week is considered full time, according to report in Dental Economics. It adds that in 2009 16.1% of women dentists were working part-time as compared with 8.0% of male dentists.

Fewer women lawyers and physicians appear to take or have the opportunity to go on the part-time track. In law firms in 2008, 12% of women partners and 3% of all partners nationwide worked part-time, according to the Project for Attorney Retention. For physicians, the split is 44% of female doctors working part-time, while 22% of male doctors do, according to the Cejka Search and American Medical Group Association’s (AMGA) 2011 Physician Retention Survey.

It’s not clear whether the significant percent of women dentists in the U.S. who work less than full-time accounts for the gap between their annual earning and those of male dentists, which is similar to the differences in income for female lawyers and physicians and their male counterparts, according to 2013 US Census figures.