Female dentists in the U.S. are more diverse in race, ethnicity, nativity, and spoken languages than their male colleagues. However, they also report significantly lower annual incomes than male dentists, according to research from the State University of New York (SUNY).
The diversity of female dentists may help improve access to dental care but may also come at a cost. Female dentists reported mean annual incomes 25% lower than those of male dentists, concluded the researchers from SUNY Albany's Oral Health Workforce Research Center.
"One of the most concerning findings of the study was the income gap between female and male dentists, which cannot be explained by controlling for personal and work characteristics," wrote the authors, led by Dr. Simona Surdu, PhD, co-deputy director of the Oral Health Workforce Research Center ("Evaluating the Impact of Dentists' Personal Characteristics on Workforce Participation," Oral Health Workforce Research Center, December 2021).
Currently, about 50% of dental students in the U.S. are women. This shift has led to questions about how gender may affect the distribution of the dental workforce as well as its capacity to meet the needs of underserved populations.
To assess the variation among dentists in workforce participation patterns related to certain personal characteristics, the researchers evaluated data from the 2014-2018 American Community Survey. Of the 148,878 active dentists included in the study, 31.1% were women. From 2009-2013, about 25% of active dentists were female, the authors wrote.
Female dentists reported mean annual incomes of $157,509, while male dentists reported incomes of $210,097. Roughly 37% of female dentists earned $100,000 or less compared with 25% of male dentists, and female dentists age 35 to 44 were 1.7 times more likely to have lower incomes than male dentists of the same age.
In addition, female dentists were more likely to be employees (55% vs. 34%) rather than owners. They were also more likely to work less than 30 hours per week (13% vs. 9%) and more likely to work part time if they were under the age of 65.
The decision to work part time may be at least somewhat related to child care, the authors noted. In prior studies of dental students, female dental students were more likely to be involved in child care than male dental students. In addition, this study found the likelihood of working part time increased with the number of children in the household.
"Those with 2 children were 1.5 times as likely, and those with 3 or more children nearly twice as likely, to go part-time as dentists without children," the authors wrote.
Female dentists were also more likely to be racially and ethnically diverse than their male colleagues. About 60% of female dentists were white, non-Hispanic, in comparison to 78% of male dentists.
Furthermore, female dentists were more likely to be foreign born and bilingual. About 36% of female dentists were bilingual compared to 20% of men. Moreover, 33% of female dentists were foreign born compared to 19% of male dentists.
Though the income gap appears to remain, dentistry may be closer to diversifying its profession and becoming more representative of the U.S. population. This may in turn benefit underserved communities because access to care improves when providers mirror the race and ethnicity of patients, the authors noted.
"It is encouraging that change in the gender composition of the profession is accompanied by other dimensions of diversity that directly reflect trends in the U.S. population," the authors wrote.
In this study, female dentists were more likely than male dentists to work in settings other than a dentist or physician office (2% vs. 1%). That figure reflects other trends found in prior research that suggest female dentists are also more likely to treat more publicly insured patients and are more likely to suggest early prevention strategies than restorative interventions.
"Thus, the growth in numbers of women in dentistry may benefit the capacity of the delivery system to meet the full spectrum of needs within the population and the growing and changing demand for services," the authors concluded.