More women than ever are joining the profession—and changing it for the better, writes Stephanie Osfield
When Leonie Clark was studying to become a dentist over 30 years ago, only a quarter of those enrolled in her course were women.
“Some lecturers referred to all the students as ‘gentlemen’ and a few largely ignored the female students when asking questions,” says Dr Clark, who is now principal dentist at Smilemakers in NSW’s Blue Mountains.
Cut to the present and women graduates in dentistry now outnumber men. Figures from the Department of Health show that in the 20-34 year age group, 55 per cent of dental practitioners are now female.
“This trend mirrors figures from the Australian Dental Association [ADA],” says Dr Karin Alexander, a former president of the ADA. “There are now more female than male student members of the ADA and also more female practising members under the age of 40 years. This suggests that generationally, over time there will be more female dental practitioners in the future than males.”
Science and sculpting
According to Dr Alexander, dentistry often appeals to women because it is a ‘people’ profession, that mixes both science and ‘art’.
“Advancements in dental techniques, where we not only restore function but also focus on the aesthetics of teeth, have certainly contributed to dentistry’s growing appeal,” says Dr Alexander.
“I love the fine detail in some of the dental work I do,” agrees Dr Clark. “And I really enjoy that artistic side of the profession, where you get to shape and sculpt teeth. The intricacy and accuracy required is always challenging and rewarding.”
Dentistry offers a variety of family-friendly work options that are a good fit for many women.
“The dental profession perfectly suits the modern lives of mums engaged in the juggle of generating income and looking after kids and family,” says Anna Maria Romero, principal dentist at The Tooth Place, with practices in Potts Point and Redfern in Sydney. “Dentistry is a very flexible occupation where you can work part time or full time and still earn a reasonably good wage.”
That doesn’t mean it’s all plain sailing—women still need to work at getting the balance right.
“Dentistry has given me the ability to choose the days I work and reserve weekends for family time but it can also be demanding, particularly if you are running a practice,” says Michelle Ever Juan, practice principal at the Bondi Dentists surgery in Sydney. “You also need to somehow fit in continuing education to ensure you keep up with all the changes and new developments in our industry.”
As more women are now studying dentistry, in the future, dental practices with all female practitioners will become more common.
“Women involved in dentistry are as capable as men,” says Dr Romero, whose team includes three female dentists and one male. “However, we can still sometimes feel that patients prefer a male practitioner. This is not a concern for myself and my practices, but I strongly believe that more work needs to be done in this area.
“In addition, the working hours of a female dentist normally drop once they start a family, which could also have an impact on the practice revenue and finance overall. It is not as simple as bringing a new dentist to compensate for your shorter working hours—as patients often only want to see you.”
According to Dr Alexander, any scepticism about a woman’s ability to do the job is usually quickly overcome by providing good treatment. “I think this idea that male dentists are more skilled is far less common now compared with 20–30 years ago,” Dr Alexander says. “My experience is that female dentists are generally now being treated as equal by patients and peers and by their male counterparts when they perform the same clinical tasks.”
In addition, more women are engaging in the ‘political’ side of dentistry.
“They are becoming involved in organisations like the ADA and the State Branches, on Committees and in Council and are making a very positive contribution,” says Dr Alexander.
Do women in dentistry bring a different sensibility to the job?
“I believe they do,” says Dr Ever Juan. “Women bring a friendliness, compassion, nurturing and consideration to their dental practice. It is not that male dentists don’t have these traits, but we tend to raise women to show these gentle, caring qualities more openly and easily.”
This female touch stretches beyond developing supportive and patient-sensitive relationships. Female dentists may also pay a little more attention to the fine details of the practice to create a less clinical atmosphere. “We certainly try to create a calm and familiar environment for our patients to help manage their anxiety and make their visit as relaxing as possible,” says Johanna Ramon, a dentist at The Tooth Place, who has over 12 years’ experience. “In our practice we ensure that comfortable furniture, relaxing music, friendly greetings and personable conversations help make the patient feel welcomed and at ease.”
There are also less obvious dividends.
“Female dentists are generally very good at verbal communication and explaining procedures,” says Dr Alexander. “In fact, a great many patients now prefer females—some even observe that we have smaller hands that help make dental procedures more comfortable!”
The management stye of dental practices also appears to benefit from the approach of female practitioners.
“I’ve had dental reps comment that it is obvious when a practice is run by a woman because it has a more inclusive approach and relaxed atmosphere,” says Dr Clark. “Being a good dentist is all about establishing relationships and I think women do that very effectively. It’s very satisfying to build up rapport and trust with people that helps them improve their dental health.
“And I get a huge buzz when I help cure someone of severe dental anxiety so that coming to the dentist is no longer something to fear.”