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Women In Debtistry: A Panel Discussion

Dentistry was once a male-dominated occupation, but that demographic is quickly changing. A panel, moderated by Beacon editor Dr. Arthur J. Crosta, ('67) recently discussed how that trend is altering the profession.

Dr. Arthur Crosta: Twenty years ago there were fewer than 2,000 women dentists in the whole United States. Today there are more than 25,000. To what do you attribute the growth of women in dentistry?

Mr. Joe Silverman: I think one of the reasons for the growth of women in dentistry is the possibility for very good part-time work. They don't lose out by saying, "I want to be home for my children by a certain time, or I only want to work two or three days a week". A lot of women I have spoken to are going into dentistry because it allows them to work two or three days a week and still be home four days a week to take care of a household. In society, it has been the woman's role to raise children, even though that is shifting more to men taking care of children, also. I guess this is part of the shift, allowing women to have a good, respectable profession and still not have to do it full time.

AC: Anybody agree or disagree with that?

Dr. Peter Kudyba: Well, I agree with it, but I can tell you where it started, give you a background. I think it started way back when affirmative action started to come into play, especially in the middle '80s, where we had the yuppies coming out of college and AIDS coming into the forefront. Dentistry was not that great a profession to go into. We had a lapse because government came in and said that we had too many dentists. So many males went into the business world. Then all of a sudden affirmative action came into it and females fell into the minority group, which attracted them to dentistry. I think it's evolved to the point where they've found out, as Joe said, that with flex-time, picking the time when to practice, they can raise a family. I think now it has become a norm.

Dr. Lynn Harasty: I completely agree with both the trends. I was a nurse back when AIDS first popped on the scene, and I noticed a shift in medicine and then in dentistry­how people, men in particular, shifted out of healthcare and into Wall Street, the business field.

AC: Do you think because men were not going into dentistry at the time that it opened the door for women, or do you believe women were actively recruited?

LH: I think it was simultaneous, as Dr. Kudyba said. Another factor, I believe, was managed care.

AC: In what way?

LH: I think that as people are considering more socialized medicine, there is a trend where more women are entering healthcare. You see that in other countries as well.

Ms. Marnie Johnson: I agree with all these comments, but there may be another factor. People have the image that dentistry is very barbaric, and they just picture the forceps. Now, with a move in dentistry toward cosmetics, there is a more caring emphasis. I get a lot of input from women patients who say, "You know, a man dentist would never tell me you can do this to make your teeth look this way." They appreciate a woman's input in cosmetics­not to say that men don't have that, but I think a lot of women feel more comfortable with women. Patients feel we have smaller hands and it won't hurt as badly, or that we are more compassionate or gentle. That is what I have been told by patients.

JS: I have actually been told both by female patients­that a female has a better point of view on esthetics, and also that, "I am so glad you are a man, I would rather go to a man dentist. I feel they know more what they are doing than women do." It is just a perception. I think it is just a perception that doctors and men know what they are doing. I have actually been told both sides.

AC: What effect do you think the increase in women is having on the profession, if any?

PK: A male dentist visited the clinics one day. He looked around and saw all the females out on the clinic floor and said, "This is the greatest thing for dentistry for men. Look at all these young women we have out there­these are the people I can hire." He was looking at it from the perspective that he can open up a full-time practice and have the days filled in on a part-time basis with females.

AC: Why did he think more females are more likely to be hired than males?

PK: Well, because they will come in on a part-time basis, they will be flexible. A male is still looked upon as a provider for the family; I still think that is out there. Whereas the female is not really the provider for the family, and it looks like she can fulfill her dreams of being a
professional but also does not have to have that full-time constraint where she goes in from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. or whatever a full-time practice involves. I find that many females going in have home offices, and in fact, I tell them that it is the ideal thing, where you can have a home office and then your time is really your own. When your husband comes home, then you can work in the evening or work Saturdays.

LH: Actually, I have had job offers, probably specifically because I am a female and people have been up-front about that. Balancing out the practice.

AC: Balancing out the practice or the fact that you would be more willing to work shorter hours or part time?

LH: Because there would be no competition there, that I wouldn't want to come in and take over.

AC: Why not, why wouldn't a women have the same goal?

LH: Some do.

PK: But I can tell you, I have spoken to many of the female students. A lot of them want to get married and have a family and therefore work part time.

LH: The great thing about dentistry is that it affords you the opportunity to do whatever you want. If you want to have a consuming career, you can do that. You can have your own practice and do whatever you want with it. But if you don't and you want to work part time, you can do that, too. There are not a whole lot of professions that can afford you that opportunity to go in any direction you want.

AC: Marnie, since you are still a student, what do you believe most of your female classmates' aspirations for dentistry and life are, so to speak.

MJ: A lot of people I know want to go into residencies, and others want to specialize. Some people are putting off having children until they are done with the specialities, but there are a lot of people in our class who have already had children. I am going into an all-female practice where I was an assistant.

AC: It has been written that women dentists work fewer hours and retire earlier. How do you think that will affect the delivery of care in the future?

PK: I don't think it will affect the delivery of the care. If you are working fewer hours, then you have to take on a smaller patient load. There is no reason why you can't work your schedule around Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Very rarely are you going to send something out to the lab on Monday that would enable you to insert that crown on Tuesday. You have a week turnaround before you can do the inserts, so flex time should not make a difference as far as delivery of care, as long as you do not overbook yourself.

MJ: If you are only going to be part time, you are not flooding the market as much. There will be more opportunities for more people to go into dentistry and more variety in its practice­more group practices like you are seeing with physicians now. Patients can at least see somebody. I work for a cardiology group with 10 physicians. I think that is what is going to happen with dentistry. You are not going to have just this one person working out of their office all the time, you are going to have more variety.

PK: The public has to realize they are not going to be seeing the same individual all the time. In dentistry, at one time, when you went in you would see Dr. So and So, and he would be your provider all the way down. I think the public now is going to have to get used to the position that you have all these part-time people coming in and these big practices going on, and they may see one doctor one day and another doctor the following day. I think you have to watch how the public is going to react to this.

MJ: But large practices are good in a way because then patients have access all the time. There is always somebody available. At least when you have a bunch of dentists working together, you have the understanding that you are going to see someone today.

PK: I think, as I said, you have to see how the public reacts to it because people are used to personalized care. It is one area that they like about dentistry, having the one individual. In medicine, when they went into managed care, you heard many people grumbling, saying "One day I see So and So, how do I know what he knows?" At least in dentistry, there is the constant of an individual looking at the same person at all times.

JS: I think that for long procedures patients will still get personalized care. For emergency procedures, patients will see who is there that day and not wait two days until their primary provider comes in. But if you are having bridge work done, you are not going to have the preps done by one person and the try in done by another doctor in that office. But in an emergency procedure you will see whichever doctor is there that day.

AC: With the fact that women are working fewer hours and may be retiring earlier, the implication is that there might not be enough choices for patients in the future, and that there will be actually a shortage of dentists as most of the people retiring are male and maybe a majority coming in are female. Do you think that will be a problem in the future? A shortage of dentists because of the working hours, or do you think that is bogus?

MJ: I think that as the AIDS scare blows over a little bit more, we will be getting larger classes than we can handle on the clinic floors right now. The applications are so high. I have heard people could not even get interviews. I think it was not very appealing to get into dentistry, but now
people are starting to get into it because they are realizing that the hours are flexible and it is not like going through medical school and the residencies.

PK: I think, in fact, that there will not be enough dentists. There are not going to be enough because dentistry did its job and closed four dental schools. The other dental schools cut down the size of the classes, and this had an effect on dentistry as it is today. And I think we are not going to have enough dentists.

AC: How do the career paths of male dentists and female dentists compare? Are women more likely to be solo practitioners, associates, or partners?

LH: I think women will tend to be in groups. They enjoy working with others more so, and I think the general trend is away from solo practice.

AC: The Class of 2002 was the first in New Jersey Dental School history to have more females than males. Do you believe this is a trend that will continue?

JS: I think that men hope so. I don't think that it will keep going to 70/25. I think it will continue around the 50/50 mark.

PK: I think the economy is going to have a lot to do with it.

LH: I do, too.

PK: Right now the economy is booming. The cost of education in dentistry is very high, so a young man sees an avenue where he can get out of school and get an MBA, do it in increments, and make much more money than getting himself into a bind financially as he would do in dentistry.

MJ: A lot of businesses are hiring people and then paying them for continuing education. They do not do that in dentistry.

PK: If the economy is going to go down and there is not going to be that much money out there, you are going to find people with the credentials might fall back into the health professions.

JS: Not everybody is doing dentistry just for the money. I have an MBA. I went into dentistry because I wanted to work with patients. My MBA will probably help me with my office, but people are not necessarily going into MBAs because they feel more potential there, and people are not necessarily going away from dentistry because they don't think there is as much potential. I hope that a lot of people are going into dentistry because they want to work with patients and they want to help them.

AC: The American Association of Women Dentists has a web site that lists some perceived advantages of female dentists as stated by women dentists and patients: better communication andlistening skills, a higher level of trust, they are extremely compassionate and caring, children identify with women dentists as a mother figure, excellent rapport with patients, and flexible
schedules. Do these perceptions have any basis in reality as far as you are concerned as defining factors of women dentists, or do you think they are just stereotypes?

MJ: I think it is individualized.

JS: I think it is stereotyped. There are just as many men that would have those same qualities. I am interested in going into pediatrics, and I know I work extremely well with the kids. I do not think it has to do with being male or female. I think it has to do with how you specialize and if you care about your work.

MJ: I have been told by a male patient that he loves coming to me because I am a woman. You know, I have heard it from men and women alike, but I think it is very individualized. I think there are certain people that just click with a certain doctor and that is just where it is. It is probably stereotypical, but when I first see a patient on a referral visit, I often hear, "Oh good, you are a women, you are going to be more gentle." And I think this is something that maybe the public hears.

AC: But you don't really think there is a lot of validity to it.

MJ: No.

PK: I think early on in the transition, the first women that came into dentistry were from health professions such as nursing and dental hygiene. When these women came in to school, they were more compassionate, more organized, and more caring than the males. I find now that we
have the mix of male and female, I find that women may be more compassionate to the patients, but that the organizational skills and everything else are fairly well equalized.

LH: I think dentistry as a profession in general has become more compassionate, more caring, spending more time talking to your patients about the chief complaint, and what their needs are.

 

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