When I graduated from dental school back in 2004, around 50% of my class consisted of female students -- a male-female split that is indicative of today's dental school population. Yet some of the women I knew in my class never ended up going into the practice of dentistry. Why would these smart, talented women not put their years of dental school education into practice? Quite simply for them, it came down to the challenging juggling act between family and career.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation report from March 2015, 27% of all dentists in the U.S. are women. Today, women make up nearly half of dental school graduates (a 2012-2013 ADA report counted 2,801 male graduates of U.S. dental schools and 2,398 female graduates) ,and more are working full-time than ever before. From these numbers, we can deduce that we are in the midst of a growing trend.
This was apparent at the recent Aspen Dental Women's Leadership Experience, where I was alongside more than 50 other female dentists. Being among so many of my peers and colleagues, it was clear we all faced several of the same challenges that come with being a women in today's dental practice.
One topic we discussed was the issue of gender bias, particularly when it comes to women in leadership roles. Often, people expect leaders to be cool, calm, authoritative, and dominant -- all characteristics that can be perceived as traditionally "masculine." Traditional "feminine" traits are being warm, friendly, deferential, and nurturing. This clash of expectations is the basis for gender bias and a reason why many women run into challenges when being a leader.
Fortunately for my peers and me, we're in a profession where those traditionally feminine traits have high value: healthcare. Having great chairside manner -- the ability to be a nurturing, warm individual who can confidently help patients through a whole mouthful of issues -- is an advantage, a sentiment a lot of the women at the event agreed with.
Lead like a girl
For other current and future female dentists, I say #LeadLikeaGirl, the theme of the conference. This means trusting your professional and personal instincts. Having the courage to realize there is no cookie-cutter answer to every question or approach to navigating a challenging relationship between two employees.
Leadership comes from taking risks and having the belief that you're ultimately doing the right things whenever you are true and accountable to yourself. However, that doesn't mean going it alone -- it's critical to build a network of peers and mentors whom you can turn to for advice and coaching.
Conferences such as this Women's Leadership Experience and others are an opportunity to seek out other women who are mentors to learn and better oneself as a leader and a dentist. This kind of event created a level of kinship and sisterhood that I don't get a chance to feel every day when I'm within the four walls of my own practice. Yet, finding people you want to emulate, male or female, is always a key to success.
Most important, appreciate the people around you who are building you up. There is no such thing as a great work/life balance without having strength from your team at work and your family at home. Empowering them will also empower you.
In dental school, we learned being a better dentist requires practice. The same goes for leadership in the real world. Having consistent, confident, and caring female dentists will give dentistry a promising future -- for business and for healthcare.
Monica Garnache, DMD, is an Aspen Dental lead dentist and practice owner of two practices in Eugene and Keizer, OR.
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