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Breaking the enamel ceiling: Lessons from women in dentistry

June 15, 2023
When Julie Charlestein first became a dental CEO, she faced a number of obstacles to carve her own path. She has since seen a significant gender shift she hopes can serve as a blueprint for other industries.

As women continue to strive for equality and representation across all industries, the dental industry has seen a significant positive shift toward gender equity. More women are studying to be dentists and hygienists, with women now comprising the majority of students in dental schools across the US.1 Additionally, just over half of all dentists in the country are women, and this number is expected to continue to rise.2

As the CEO of Premier Dental, a century-old business, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing firsthand the positive changes that have taken place in our industry. I believe these changes can serve as a blueprint for other industries to follow.

Professional development

When I first became CEO, dentistry was a male-dominated industry, and I faced a number of obstacles to carve my own path. Through professional peer groups and business consultants, I created and executed a clear understanding of how I uniquely work and lead, and how best to have my voice heard. Knowing people with different perspectives, backgrounds, and insights helped bring balance to my outlook and decision making.

Professional organizations such as the American Association of Women Dentists (AAWD) provide mentorship, networking opportunities, and leadership development programs tailored to women’s unique needs and experiences. These organizations create a supportive community for women to thrive and succeed in dentistry.

Other industries can learn from this model and develop networks to help their teams build connections and provide support in their career journeys. Having a community of peers who share common challenges and goals can make a significant difference in women's ability to successfully navigate their careers.

You might also want to read: Guiding women in dentistry into positions of empowerment and leadership

Finding your authentic self

When I first stepped into my role as CEO, I wasn’t clear as to how I should define myself as a leader. I wondered how I’d be effective with a team of all men, all of whom were older than me. Should I try to be like them? I quickly learned that would never work—it was far too disingenuous. Instead, I found success by embracing my own leadership style, which is collaborative, fun, and focused. By staying true to myself, I built a loyal and dedicated team that supported me in achieving our shared goals.

Whether carving your own path or stepping into an existing role, finding your authentic self is a crucial step toward achieving career success and fulfillment. It can be challenging to navigate a traditionally male-dominated field while staying true to your values and style. However, I’ve found that it’s essential to remain authentic to yourself in order to build trust and credibility with your colleagues.

All industries must recognize the value of diverse leadership styles and should encourage women to be authentic in their approach to leadership. By creating a culture that values individuality and allows women to be themselves, companies can create a more inclusive and supportive environment. This also requires embracing change—especially when a woman takes the reins from a male predecessor—and appreciating the opportunities that transition presents.

Peer-led mentorship

In the early days of my career, I worked with an incredible female family business consultant who brought strength and guidance to my goal execution. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate that to provide support and counsel, role models do not have to be people in your field or even be the same gender. Wisdom, business intuition, and experience can be found in leaders in all industries. I credit much of my growth and success to the mentorship I received through the years, and I hope to do the same for others.

Mentorship is an important component of professional development, but it can be particularly crucial for women who face unique challenges and obstacles. By recognizing the value of peer-led mentorship and creating mentorship programs for women, dentistry actively opened the door for women to explore new opportunities and growth. By providing a platform for women to learn from one another, companies create a supportive and collaborative environment that empowers women to succeed.

Eye toward the future

The dental industry has been a true success and example of female leadership, from academics, to clinical practice, to industry. This paves the way for generations of not just women, but all those looking to achieve powerful positions who may not have done so in the past. This progress is important for all leadership success. If other industries can follow dentistry in embracing this positive change, they can also encourage new perspectives and ideas and innovative ways that benefit us all.

Editor's note: This article appeared in the June 2023 print edition of Dental Economics magazine. Dentists in North America are eligible for a complimentary print subscription. Sign up here.


  1. Among first year dental students, women see highest rate of enrollment. American Dental Association. Accessed March 30, 2023. https://www.ada.org/publications/ada-news/2022/june/among-first-year-dental-students-women-see-highest-rate-of-enrollment
  2. Dentist demographics and statistics. Zippia. September 9, 2022. Accessed March 30, 2023. https://www.zippia.com/dentist-jobs/demographics/

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