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The gender pay gap is holding female dentists back—as well as the profession. Here’s how practices can remove barriers to women’s equal participation in the workforce. By Angela Tufvesson
Australia’s gender pay gap is just over 13 per cent. This means women earn an average of $242 less than men each week—or more than $12,000 less each year.
Indeed, the latest data released by the Australian Taxation Office shows women earn less than men in every occupation—yes, every occupation—including dentistry. It doesn’t matter if you’re a dentist, dental hygienist, dental prosthetist, dental technician or dental therapist—a woman’s median taxable income is lower than that of a man.
And the pattern begins straight after university, with 2020 data collated by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency revealing female dental graduates earn almost 12 per cent less than male dental graduates.
It’s an especially relevant issue given 53 per cent of Australian dental practitioners are now women–a figure that’s expected to grow. “In dentistry there should not be huge imbalances and there should not be a gender pay gap of this size,” says Professor Alastair J Sloan, head of Melbourne Dental School at The University of Melbourne.
Unpacking the gap
The gender pay gap measures the difference between the average earnings of women and men in the workforce. It’s the result of social and economic factors that combine to reduce women’s earning capacity over time. These include high rates of part-time work, unconscious bias in hiring and pay decisions, and female-dominated industries attracting lower wages.
Indeed, dental assistants are the only dental occupation where women earn more than men, but overall earnings are considerably lower than other industry cohorts.
It’s important to note the gender pay gap is not the difference between two people being paid differently for the same work, although unequal pay is a symptom of the problem. “I know for sure that my male dentist friends were getting a 45 per cent commission rate for the same kind of work that I would do, and I would be getting 40 per cent,” says Dr Minal Patil of her six years working as an associate dentist.
Plus, she says practices would sometimes inquire about her family situation, which affected her access to employment. “They would sometimes ask if I was married or going to have kids, and that would affect the number of days of work I would get—so, for example, two or three days instead of five because it’s easier to replace someone who works fewer days.”
What’s often viewed as choice instead reflects cultural expectations that women should take on more caring and domestic work responsibilities in the home, which limits opportunities in paid employment and exacerbates the gender pay gap.
“A number of female dentists are choosing to work part-time,” says Bethan Flood, general manager of Prime Practice HR Solutions. “In my experience, quite often when it’s a married couple and both are dentists, the male takes the full-time load, with the female taking the part-time load and spending time with the family.”
Taking action in your practice
At the current rate of change it will take another 26 years for the gender pay gap to close completely for all professions. But it’s not all bad news—evidence shows that when employers remove barriers to full and equal participation of women in the workforce, the gender pay gap can narrow. This is true whether a business employs 10 people or 10,000 people. So, what can you do to close the gender pay gap in your practice?
Flexible working arrangements for male and female staff, which many practices already take advantage of, allow everyone to participate more equally in the workplace and as caregivers. Flow-on benefits for productivity, employee retention and increased representation of women in senior leadership positions are also important.
“There are huge benefits to allowing everybody to work flexibly, if that can be managed, without any prejudice to salary, work-life balance or working environment,” says Professor Sloan. “For women coming up you’ve got to have good role models to aspire to, which normalises the idea of female leadership.”
Removing unconscious bias like assumptions about the sort of work men and women can perform and their future plans is another key area. Professor Sloan says formal training and embedding the removal of unconscious bias into the values of your practice can make a big difference—along with calling out inappropriate behaviour.
“You have to consciously make the effort to look to know where your biases lie,” he says. “Inappropriate doesn’t mean at the level of harassment; it’s inappropriate if somebody’s not being considered for a role. You can ask, ‘Why aren’t you considering that person?’ in a very polite and non-confrontational manner. It’s incumbent on us all to call out these behaviours.”
Flood says clear hiring criteria can help to remove any bias when you’re employing new staff. “Try not to look at the person’s name or gender; look at their skills and experience, and match that to your criteria. It can also assist if you have both males and females doing the interviewing to ensure a balance.”
And it goes without saying that equal pay is critical. “Pay for the skills and experience that you have in front of you, regardless of whether they’re male or female,” says Flood “It’s vitally important, because if you choose to pay a female less just because she’s female, you may miss out on a really good candidate who may be a great employee.”
The ultimate benefit of closing, or at least narrowing, the gender pay gap in your practice is an ability to get the best out of your workforce. Dr Patil, who owns Smiles by the Sea in Monavale, says the impact can be transformative.
“Knowing they can excel in their field without there being gender bias, that just sends a massive boost to women. The confidence that you get to perform at your best is amazing.”