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The male RDH: What's it like being male in a female-dominated profession?

Dec. 1, 2020
Mention the phrase "registered dental hygienist," and most people picture a woman. Walk into any classroom in any dental hygiene school, and the gender disparity is immediately evident. What's it like to be male in this female-dominated profession?

Tyler Grobmeier, BSDH
Mary Leighton, BSDH
Lindsay Jauchius, BSDH
Amy Coplen, RDH, EPDH, MS

In dental hygiene school, the disparity between the number of male and female students is evident everywhere you look. In 2020, there were four male students in the entire senior class at Pacific University School of Dental Hygiene Studies; only three in the junior class. Patients often bring up gender in conversation with male dental hygiene students, which indicates that it’s important to address and raise awareness to the fact that male hygienists do exist.

Picture this: you walk into a new office for a working interview, only to realize you will be working closely with a young male hygienist throughout the day. This might be your first encounter with a male hygienist, because only 5.6% of all hygiene students are male.1 According to the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA), 98% of the nation’s practicing dental hygienists are female.2 Because male hygienists are such a rarity, we decided to conduct our own interviews to find out more from Pacific University male alumni. 

Throughout our interviews with practicing male dental hygienists and in reviewing the literature, we discovered that not only are males underrepresented in the dental hygiene profession, but they also face obstacles in the field due to their gender. One of these obstacles is patient perception. What does a patient think of a male dental hygienist? Does the gender of a dental hygienist affect the quality of care received? What are the challenges and obstacles male dental hygienists face in the workforce? We took a look at a related field to shed light on some of our questions: nursing. 

Nursing has made major advancements in depolarizing the profession when it comes to gender. However, the profession continues to be largely female. Approximately 10% of the 3.3 million total registered nurses in the United States are male.3 Some nursing studies suggest that gender discrimination plays a large role in the way patients and doctors view male nurses. Since very little research has been done on being male in the dental hygiene field, we wanted to ask a couple of our male alumni if they have faced gender discrimination on the job. We found the results to be quite compelling.

We started by asking our interviewees what advantages come with being male in a predominantly female profession. Both interviewees said they felt as though being male was an advantage when trying to find a job. Neither of them struggled to get hired, and both felt that being male allowed them to stand out among other applicants. Both also stated that a lot of people say they have never had a male hygienist clean their teeth before. One also mentioned that because it is such a rarity, it can be a good conversation starter. Although it is uncommon to be a male in this field, they felt as though they were treated equally as employees. As we often see in dental advertising, word of mouth, and with our own eyes as we enter the dental office for our biannual visits, male dental hygienists aren’t often present, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. 

I felt that being male gave me a boost when I applied for jobs. In my eyes, I would think my application hit the top of the application stack because of the rarity of us.

— 2015 Pacific University alumnus

We were curious to know if the interviewees ever felt any type of gender discrimination from patients, because we felt that it must be inevitable. One male hygienist expressed that he never felt gender discrimination from patients, while the other had a lot to say about it. The 2016 Pacific University alumnus stated, “I definitely have experienced gender discrimination. Some patients decline being treated by a male and prefer to see females. I’ve experienced some cultures that prefer to be seen by their own sex. For me, I’ve had this happen with around 15 or so patients, more so with female and older patient populations.” Gender discrimination in dental hygiene is an important topic to explore when evaluating male dental hygienists and their experiences within the feminized profession of dental hygiene. One study within the field of nursing found that gender discrimination is related to cultural ideology and societal perceptions of males in traditional male occupations and various societal roles.4 The same study suggested that extending nursing school outreach to male applicants and fostering positive societal perceptions of males in the nursing profession may increase the number of males entering the field of nursing, thus, positively shifting cultural viewpoints of males in female-dominated professions. Within the profession of dental hygiene, these are areas we can work to improve as well. 

Aside from gender discrimination, we wanted to know what other unique challenges male hygienists encounter. We expected them to consistently get mistaken for the dentist, but only one of them had experienced this. Another unusual challenge that was brought to our attention was that it is perceived to be difficult to build rapport as a male provider in a field dominated by women. Often patients seem intimidated or withdrawn at first. In society, we frequently stereotype men as macho and insensitive, unable or unlikely to provide compassionate care. One study revealed that patients assumed male dentists were more likely to expect them to endure pain without complaining and be less responsive to their needs compared to female counterparts, who were perceived to display more empathy and be better at building rapport.5 We have noticed situations firsthand where patients have expressed pain or discomfort differently toward male students than they have toward female students. 

Society also has preconceived ideas about what a dental hygienist looks like. An interesting study in the Journal of Dental Hygiene revealed that appearance is a contributing factor in how patients perceive male dental hygienists. This study indicated that male clinicians received the most negative ratings regarding professionalism when hairstyle, clinical attire, and accessories were perceived as unprofessional, as opposed to their female counterparts.6 To put it simply, male dental hygienists with messy hair were thought to be less professional by the patient than female dental hygienists with messy hair. This insight may help explain why our interviewees and male dental hygienists out in the workforce have experienced challenges building rapport with patients, among other things. 

It’s clear that men face challenges related to gender in the field of dental hygiene today. As dental providers and colleagues, we should stress the importance of raising awareness about current issues that male dental hygienists face. This is an important first step to begin to dismantle social stereotypes and themes of gender discrimination and establish a sense of inclusion and equality. Moving forward, we hope to see more research in the field of dental hygiene evaluating patient perceptions of male dental hygienists so that we can better understand the challenges that arise and educate our colleagues and the public. Studies in the field of nursing have shown that purposeful advertising by educational programs using both female and male participants fosters a sense of inclusion for individuals searching for a profession.7 

We hope that educators see the need to address these challenges within dental hygiene programs and are motivated to increase outreach efforts to the male population. We hope this article helps readers understand the obstacles faced by men in dental hygiene, and that it promotes discussion in and out of the office. 


  1. ADA Survey of Allied Dental Education. 2018-19. https://www.ada.org/en/coda/find-a-program/program-surveys
  2. Callahan R. ADHA fact sheet: Oral health fast facts. American Dental Hygienists’ Association. https://www.adha.org/resources-docs/72210_Oral_Health_Fast_Facts_&_Stats.pdf
  3. Tollison AC. Stereotype threat in male nurse-patient interactions. J Nurs Educ. 2018;57(10):614-619. doi:10.3928/01484834-20180921-08 
  4. Kim IJ, Kim SH, Sohn SK. Societal perceptions of male nurses in South Korea: a Q-methodological study. Jpn J Nurs Sci. 2017;14(3):219-230. doi:10.1111/jjns.12152
  5. Smith MK, Dundes L. The implications of gender stereotypes for the dentist-patient relationship. J Dent Educ. 2008;72(5):562-570.
  6. O’Brien MB, Copus A, Johnson J, Inglehart MR. Examining the impact of dental hygienists’ professional appearance: Patients’ and dental student providers’ perspectives. J Dent Hyg. 2019;93(4):33-43.
  7. Clow KA, Ricciardelli R, Bartfay WJ. Are you man enough to be a nurse? The impact of ambivalent sexism and role congruity on perceptions of men and women in nursing advertisements. Sex Roles. 2015;72:363-376. doi:10.1007/s11199-014-0418-0
Tyler Grobmeier, BSDH, graduated in 2020 from the School of Dental Hygiene at Pacific University in Hillsboro, Oregon.

Lindsay Jauchius, BSDH, graduated in 2020 from the School of Dental Hygiene at Pacific University in Hillsboro, Oregon. 

Mary Leighton, BSDH, graduated in 2020 from the School of Dental Hygiene at Pacific University in Hillsboro, Oregon.

Amy Coplen, RDH, EPDH, MS, is an associate professor and program director at Pacific University, School of Dental Hygiene Studies in Hillsboro, Oregon.