One day, during our senior year in dental school, all the women in our class were called into a large auditorium for "the lecture." What, you ask, was "the lecture"? Well ... the women were going to be enlightened as to the proper manners of being a woman professional in the community.
A male faculty member began to outline several key items of protocol. First, we should never go out of the house in rollers or unprofessional attire; you never know when or where you will run into a patient or potential patient. Next, we should not fraternize with our male patients, as it would be unprofessional (as though we even needed to hear this). We should always behave professionally (whatever that meant in the early '80s).
The bottom line: Anytime we were out of the house or out of the office, we needed to be "perfect."
I don't know about you, but that whole lecture was so '50s. And we had to wonder: Did the guys get the same lecture? Absolutely not.
Still, we sat there politely listening to the things we should not do because we understood that we would be earning the respect of our patients and the community at large. We would be pillars of the community, representing the dental field. And while I agree with this notion, wasn't there a better way to approach it? Why did our faculty feel the need to talk to us about acting professionally, but not say the same things to the men?
Looking back now, it is humorous to think we sat through those "words of wisdom." I leave my office and run to the grocery store because I have to cook dinner when I get home. I may be in my office attire, which most likely is casual at best. I do not have time to change into something more formal in case I run into a patient. And if I do, so what? I just came from work and need to feed my family.
On my days off, I run to exercise class at 6:30 a.m., then to tennis at 11. Now, grant you, I am not the stylish exercise diva you might see on FitTV. And contrary to popular fiction, women not only perspire, they sweat (on occasion). But I have found many patients while either playing tennis or working out at my gym. Somehow, the conversation always comes around to what we do for a living and, miraculously, once folks know what I do for a living, the inevitable "tooth" question is asked. Where better to market your practice than with a group of health-conscious women who have just completed an exercise routine and are idly chatting? Some of my best patients have resulted from my visits to the tennis courts or the gym.
As far as "fraternizing with male patients," I was married the day before dental school started so I wasn't interested in fraternizing. As for my single colleagues, I am sure some of them may have found love in the dental office, but the majority of them found it elsewhere.
Regarding acting professional, what exactly does that mean? If you practice ethically and maintain high moral standards in both your business and personal relationships, isn't that professional? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of "professional" is "following a line of conduct as though it were a profession." The definition of "profession" is "a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation."
We are dentists. Therefore, we are professional.
The dichotomy between being a professional and having a personal life is a fallacy. I am far from perfect in either my real or professional life. There are always incidents that show our human side -- the loss of an elderly patient, the disruption of our office by a team member for some personal reason, the "perfect" day that falls apart, or the phone call from school because our kid fell and is bleeding. We all have many moments in our lives and many sides. Our patients who love us keep coming back whether or not they see us in our gym outfit or a formal gown outside of the office.
I do not know if women dental students are still subjected to "the lecture." I certainly hope not. Women who enter this field are bright, energetic, and dedicated to their profession and should have a balance in their outside activities. Between work, play, family, and giving back to the community, we all are great citizens of the dental world.
Sheri Doniger, D.D.S., practices clinical dentistry in Lincolnwood, IL. She has served as an educator in several dental and dental hygiene programs, has been a consultant for a major dental benefit company, and has written for several dental publications. Most recently, she was the editor of Woman Dentist Journal and Woman Dentist eJournal. You can reach her at email@example.com.
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