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Women in dentistry: Evolving industry culture

May 26, 2022
As a student, Dr. Susan McMahon heard, “You are taking the spot of someone who will work their whole career...you probably won’t even finish school.” She went on to help create a less biased environment for women in dentistry.

I have so many great memories from dental school: the camaraderie with my classmates, developing clinical skills, some wonderful mentors … and some memories that aren’t all warm and fuzzy.

In many ways, I was like all other second-year students—cramming for tests, racing deadlines for clinical work, and anxiously awaiting board exams, but I was also pregnant with my first child, and this created some differences between my fellow students and me.

Injecting and receiving injections from one another was part of training for local anesthetic administration. But being pregnant, I couldn’t receive any local. This meant not only would I feel the first attempt, also all subsequent (and inherently clumsy) injections, unlike my counterparts who would be numb after the first injection.

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More painfully, a well-respected clinical instructor pregnancy-shamed me. I was at the top of my class and performing well in the preclinics, but this instructor pulled me aside and told me, “You are taking the spot of someone who will work their whole career—not just until they have a baby. You probably won’t even finish school.”

This was my indoctrination to the bias I felt many times during my career.

Successful women help other women succeed. The sooner you realize you are not in competition with other women in the field, the better. There is no maximum number of women allowed to be successful within a given field.

Bias against women in dentistry

Professional women regularly experience inherent bias. This is not a foreign concept to women in any field—we are often thrust into the background rather than seen in the forefront of our fields of expertise. This has been especially true for women in dentistry—continually at the receiving end of gender bias, often hearing comments aligning that of the educator who told me I was “taking a spot” from someone who couldn’t get pregnant.

“Are you the hygienist or assistant?”—tradeshow exhibitor

“Nurse, where’s the doctor?”—more than a few patients

Encounters like this are all too familiar for women dentists. Women in dentistry have long been underrepresented in positions of power, excluded from the good ol’ boys’ networks, and (like in so many other industries) undercompensated compared to male counterparts.

Dentistry is seeing a shift in perspective due to the increasing number of women entering the field. Among the 201,117 dentists working in dentistry as of 2020, 34.5% are female, a 10% increase from 2010.

However, adding more women is not enough to change their collective experience. All too often, women are expected to fit the mold shaped by generations of primarily male dentists. While the responsibilities unique to women (such as motherhood) can be demanding, they in no way prevent us from being successful within the dental industry. In order to “have it all,” we need to break the traditional mold.

Women supporting women

Everyone has a different idealized vision for success, but there are often broad themes we all share. Success in dentistry is not limited to clinical hours and casework. Personally, I wanted to achieve excellent comprehensive clinical skills, own a prestigious practice that afforded my children and me a comfortable lifestyle, and then share my clinical experience with other like-minded dentists. Once I finally started conversations about goals with other women in the field, I realized we were nearly all after the same things.

Once I finally started conversations about goals with other women in the field, I realized we were nearly all after the same things.

If we’d shared these conversations when we were at the beginning of our careers, we might have been able to help one another achieve even more than we’ve been able to. Understanding there was a need to create spaces for these conversations, I shifted my focus to helping the next generation of women find their success in dentistry by helping tear down the obstacles my peers and I faced.

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Dr. Grace Yum saw a similar need for female support in this industry and founded Mommy Dentists in Business (MDIB), a community of women dentists dedicated to enriching one another as mothers, dentists, and business owners.

“There is no better role model for my children than showing them the power of being an entrepreneurial dentist and the magnitude of being my own boss,” Yum says. She cultivated a unique environment where each member can enhance their lives through live events, podcasts, webinars, and social media with other women all over the country.

Another of my talented peers and MDIB member is Dr. Josie Dovidio, who argues, “The challenge working moms have is that you’re expected to work as if you don’t have kids and then to parent as if you don’t have a career.” Dovidio is the founder of Yoga for Dentists, a wellness consultant, and longtime successful dentist. She says it’s crucial for “working mothers to know that they are doing enough, more than enough, and their children will be proud of all that they do for them and the patients they serve.”

Over the years, MDIB has compiled a list of key lessons we’ve learned.

Successful women help other women succeed. The sooner you realize you are not in competition with other women in the field, the better. There is no maximum number of women allowed to be successful within a given field.

Find your community of people within dentistry. Resources such as support groups help give individuals confidence and support to reach their goals.
Encouraging companies that support women in this field can be just as important as promoting individual success.

Hiring support both professionally and personally gives you the time and energy to focus on your personal goals. Delegating certain tasks helps everyone in the long run.

Allowing anyone else to make you feel guilty for pursuing your dreams is as corrosive as it is irrelevant. There is no one path that everyone must follow to be great—professionally or personally.

You can and should be a mentor and mentee. Both sides of that relationship can help you grow and learn. There is no age limit for personal growth.

Women making a difference

At the first in-person MDIB summit, Dr. Nada Albatish met her mentee, Dr. Suhad Kim, for the first time. Prior to this, the two had been communicating virtually through the MDIB mentorship program for months. Kim had recently opened a practice from scratch, and Albatish had years of experience founding and operating two practices from the ground up. This initiative and the entire platform have created a safe space where women who “do it all” no longer have to do it all alone.

These opportunities to connect and learn from one another alleviate many of the stresses of figuring it out on your own. “Ten years ago, when I left my practice late at night after finishing patients, notes, job interviews, and administrative work, I was the last car in the parking lot, and I was truly alone. Today, for this community of women, at any hour of the day, connection, support, and camaraderie exist in abundance,” Albatish says. It is these individual uplifting experiences that collectively elevate the community of women in dentistry who wear so many hats as mothers, business owners, associates, and clinicians.

There are countless women working to create a better environment for advancement:

Dr. Bao-Tran Nguyen (Fast Growth Practice), Dr. Julie Woods (Profit First Dentist), Dr. Stephanie Mapp (Mapp Your Practice), and Dr. Linty John-Varghese are all leading dentists to more profitable practices. On the business side of dentistry, Stephenie Goddard (CEO of Glidewell Dental and founder of Guiding Leaders to promote women in dentistry), Karen Phillips (VP of sales and marketing at Ultradent), and Dr. Jaleena Jessop (VP of clinical affairs at Ultradent) all support women dentists on the podium, clinically, and in the industry. Dr. Joyce Bassett and Dr. Maxine Feinberg have broken glass ceilings for all of us.

Dr. Katie To (The Wellness Dentist), Dr. Sonia Chopra (E-School Endodontic Education), and Dr. Nada Albatish (Brilliant Practice Master Class, Clinical Mastery Series) teach dentists to create their own success.

We appreciate these women and so many others who are changing the experience by leveling the playing field through a shift in culture and perspective, which has brought opportunity to all upcoming women in dentistry.

It is essential to nurture the learning process at every stage of your career. The best way to make sure we are evolving as a community and an industry is to continue having tough conversations, sharing resources, and encouraging growth. This should be a fluid process that ultimately creates a culture where women dentists are simply recognized for their contributions and expertise without any bias imposed.

Editor's note: This article appeared in the May 2022 print edition of Dental Economics magazine. Dentists in North America are eligible for a complimentary print subscription. Sign up here.

About the Author

Susan McMahon, DMD, AAACD, FAGD

Susan McMahon, DMD, AAACD, FAGD, a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine, enjoys a thriving practice in Western Pennsylvania focusing on esthetics and oral health. She is a member of numerous dental organizations and sits on the board of Catapult Education. An author and lecturer, Dr. McMahon is a gold-medal winner in the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry’s Annual Smile Gallery and has been honored as a Top Cosmetic Dentist.

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