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Lead like a girl

June 25, 2015
Women in dentistry take charge of their careers

Women in dentistry take charge of their careers

Amrita Reddy, DMD

"As a female dentist, what are some problems you face today?"

The room was silent. Until one woman spoke up:

"It bothers me when some of my new patients still assume I'm the dental assistant or the hygienist. I walk into the room and they ask, 'Where's the doctor?'"

Heads around the room nodded in agreement, and the ensuing conversation quickly snowballed into a larger discussion of stereotypes, assumptions, and gender bias-the "glass ceiling" many women face. It's an invisible, and often subconscious, barrier that exists in the health-care field.

The woman who spoke up? Not only is she the lead dentist in her office, but also the owner of her practice.

This conversation occurred at the inaugural Aspen Dental Women's Leadership Experience, a weekend event in southern California designed to engage and inspire female dentists like me to think about our own leadership.

It was also an opportunity to meet nearly 50 highly successful female dentists, specialists, and practice owners. I learned about their experiences, as well as the issues they have faced-many of which resounded with me, an owner of four Aspen Dental practices in New Hampshire and a practicing dentist myself.

Women in dentistry are not an anomaly. Statistics show that our numbers are on the rise. Prior to 1980, women comprised less than 3% of all dentists.1 Today we represent 27% of the industry, and this shift will only be more pronounced since almost half of all recent dental school graduates are smart, educated, and top-notch female clinicians.2

Interestingly, despite gains in the number of practicing female dentists, barriers remain. According to the American Dental Association, the probability that a female dentist owns her practice is 22% lower than a male dentist.3

The Aspen Dental Women's Leadership Experience was led by Shannon Cassidy, founder and CEO of Bridge Between Inc. Participants ranged from third-year and fourth-year dental students, to young dentists with a couple of years of practice under their belts, to women like me with well over a decade of experience who own their own practices.

Dental school gives us the clinical knowledge we need to be successful dentists, but it does not necessarily teach the leadership or soft skills required to build and manage an effective team or maintain composure in challenging situations-critical assets needed for running a successful, efficient practice. In what turned out to be a very animated discussion, many attendees expressed challenges with motivating their team members and resolving issues.

According to Shannon, gender bias leads not only to the subconscious expectation that a dentist is a man, but also the assumption that a woman cannot be both a "good leader" and a "good woman." Gender role expectations emphasize the stereotype that women are supposed to exhibit "feminine" traits: being warm, friendly, nurturing, emotional, sensitive, deferential, and likable. In contrast, good leaders are often defined as calm, decisive, in-control, dominant-which are thought of as stereotypically "masculine" traits. Ironically, the "feminine" traits described above are ultimately what people want from their dentists.

Incidentally, if a woman does decide to assume full leadership responsibilities, people characterize her as difficult. There's a real conflict for women: They can either be successful or likable, a disconnect that speaks volumes. That conflict is certainly something I faced in my own career. When I was originally approached about moving into practice ownership, I hesitated. I wasn't sure that I was cut out to own a practice, and as the mother of a young child (now two), I wasn't sure the time was right. The conflict was very real to me: I felt like I had to choose between being a good wife and mother and becoming a business owner and growing my career. It was a decision I agonized over, and I didn't have any women in dentistry who I could hold up as role models. As Shannon put it during our conference, "You can't be what you can't see."

Fortunately for me, I had a strong support system, a husband who encouraged my long-term career goals, and a business partner, Aspen Dental Management, Inc., that believed in me and showed me a clear path to running my own business.

All of the women at the conference are at the front line in the battle against gender bias and are leaders in this charge. Every new patient who sees our faces is a glass ceiling being broken, the change we wish to see in the world.

As stated in the Harvard Business Review article, "The Unseen Barrier," "People become leaders by internalizing a leadership identity and developing a sense of purpose."4 Women, in general, have to create a vision that shows that they can be themselves and still be leaders. This is the first step in reversing gender bias.

The theme of the event was #LeadLikeaGirl, a motto that struck a chord with many of the doctors in attendance. It is emblematic of the responsibility and ownership female dentists have as leaders wherever they are, from their living room to the patient's bedside.

To lead like a girl, one must believe they have the ability to manage both work and life, to be nurturing and authoritative. Embracing both sides of the coin-the "masculine" and "feminine" traits-is ultimately what will make us better dentists and leaders in our practices.

In my four offices, I empower women to employ these traits to their advantage, especially in situations when they need to be direct and authoritative. For them to be successful leaders, they need to be given the tools, resources, and mentoring to be great. They need coaching. And they need to see other female dentists in leadership roles whom they can emulate and aspire to be like.

Glass ceilings still exist in dentistry, female dentists are still underrepresented in leadership roles, and yet they are far from what they once were. Women dentists are here to stay, and supporting and developing the qualities they bring to the table will only strengthen the industry.

It is events like the Women's Leadership Experience that allow female clinicians to learn to promote themselves and find mentors who can help them along in their careers. Devoting time to networking and developing relationships often comes second to the priorities of home and work, yet advancement requires a combination of skill and persistence, no matter the hurdles one faces.

The Aspen Dental Women's Leadership Experience is an event I hope all female dentists, present and future, can one day enjoy and experience. It is this kind of support that has helped me realize the success I have had as a dentist, businessperson, and leader-a culture that fosters professional development and success.

The days of assuming the doctor is a man are diminishing, and the role of women in dentistry is a trend that will continue to grow. The new face in dentistry can be caring and compassionate while still being authoritative and confident.


1. Solomon ES. The future of dentistry. Dental Economics. 2015; 95(2). http://www.dentaleconomics.com/articles/print/volume-95/issue-2/features/the-future-of-dentistry.html. Accessed May 15, 2015.

2. Diringer J, Phipps K, Carsel B. Critical trends affecting the future of dentistry: Assessing the shifting landscape. 2013. http://www.ada.org/~/media/ADA/Member%20Center/FIles/Escan2013_Diringer_Full.ashx. Accessed May 15, 2015.

3. O'Loughlin K. Helping dentists succeed in a changing paradigm. http://theadso.org/resources/uploaded/media/OLoughlin_ADSO%202015Vegas%20FINAL.pdf. Presented March 20, 2015. Accessed May 15, 2015.

4. Ibarra H, Ely RJ. Women rising: The unseen barriers. Harvard Business Review. September 2013. https://hbr.org/2013/09/women-rising-the-unseen-barriers. Accessed May 15, 2015.

Amrita Reddy, DMD, has partnered with Aspen Dental for 12 years and is the owner of four practices in southern New Hampshire. She is a 2003 graduate of Boston University's Henry M. Goldman School of Dentistry.

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