For over a century the traditionally male dominated field of dentistry has been experiencing an internal revolution; one that reflects the changes of professions worldwide and across a variety of industries. What exactly is this revolution? The answer is simple – women in dentistry. There has been an influx of female owned practices and an increase in female dentists over the last century.
Although the very first woman to ever become a dentist did so in 1866, it wasn’t until the 1980s when dental schools started to see women making up about 25% of their students (1). The first European female dentist graduated in 1895 (2), and Europeans accounted for 11 of the 14 first female dental school graduates (3).
Education and Leadership
In the 2010s, women not only made up nearly half of all dental students, they also started to account for about one third of the faculty teaching at dental schools. Since 2000, female applicants have nearly doubled (3). Between 1999 and 2000, dental schools began taking proactive steps to increase the number of female dentists in their educational programs. In just one year, the number of female deans of dental schools in the United States increased from 3 to 12, and 39 female assistant deans were added to the existing 72 (3).
Currently, women make up the following percentages of practicing dentists in the respective countries (8):
United Kingdom — 45%
Germany – 42%
France – 40%
Latvia – 87%
Estonia – 87%
Poland – 78%
Finland – 69%
Romania – 68%
By the year 2020, over half of the dentists worldwide will be women. Already in the United States, 49% of dental school graduates are female and in Canada 55.4% (7). It seems that the majority of male dentists are retiring and being replaced by a younger, more diverse population.
Why are Women Choosing Dentistry?
Entering into dentistry involves a combination of compassion, nurture, and problem solving, along with the challenges and respect of a doctoral degree. However, women seeking graduate level education across the board have significantly increased over the past 50 years. Dentistry is not the only field that has seen an influx of women professionals; medicine reflects the very same trends.
Unlike medicine, dentistry allows for an enhanced work-life balance, allowing dentists to pursue their careers while also focusing on family. Some dentists choose to work part-time as associates, rather than take on the additional responsibilities of practice ownership, because of the benefits that it offers on a personal level. It appears to be the case that female dentists are more likely to work part time or fewer than 30 hours per week (6). Although male dentists may choose to do the same, it is significantly less common.
One cannot ignore that a significant reason for this increase is due to the breakdown of gender barriers when it comes to dental school acceptance and financial accessibility after graduation. Some women as recently as the 1980s, have shared that being female was enough to prevent them from getting funding for a loan after dental school to open their own practice. Now, just a few decades later, the thought of such rejection seems completely foreign.
Unfortunately, there continues to be a salary gap between male and female dentists, indicating the same monetary challenges that women face in other professional fields. According to ADEA (American Dental Education Association), UK female dentists earn 88% of the same salary as males, while American female dentists only earn about 82% (5). It seems that while significant strides have been made to put female dentists on the same playing field as their male peers, there are still challenges that need to be overcome.
The future is female
It is undeniable that women have had a major influence on the world of dentistry that we see today, and the impact of women in this profession has been felt around the globe - even in countries where women have been marginalized by opportunities or influence. The hard work and dedication of the many women in dentistry is what has helped break down the misconceptions about their abilities to become competent dentists and to run successful practices. As women approach a dominant presence in dentistry, the profession and industry will continue to progress and change for the better.