Working for her

July 1, 1998
Is it easier or harder to work for a female dentist? Are they more emotional? How do they handle sexism from patients?

Is it easier or harder to work for a female dentist? Are they more emotional? How do they handle sexism from patients?

Dianne D. Glasscoe, RDH, BS

One of the fastest-growing trends in dentistry today is the number of females completing dental school. According to the 1994 Survey of Dental Practice conducted by the ADA ,one-third of all dental school graduates are women. It seems that the face of this male-dominated profession is changing. In the years to come, we can look for more and more women dentists.

Although this is an emerging trend in the United States, females have dominated the dental profession in other countries for many years. For example, in Russia, more than 75 percent of the dentists there are women.

And why shouldn`t women be dentists? The smaller hand size of women has long been considered an advantage over their male counterparts in being able to work in such a small, confined area as the mouth. It could be argued that women have better fine motor skills, developed from traditionally female hobbies such as needlepoint, sewing, piano, etc. In addition, women are by nature the more nurturing of the genders. It would stand to reason that this inherent trait probably makes women more concerned with patient comfort and care.

Way back when

When I began my career in dentistry 25 years ago, no female dentists were practicing in my area. Now there are several female general practitioners, a female orthodontist, oral surgeon, periodontist and pedodontist.

In addition, more women are entering medical fields than ever before. I used to feel that it would be somewhat awkward to have a lady gynecologist. But, I changed my mind after I was treated in an emergency situation several years ago by a female gynecologist. In fact, since that time, I have not seen another male gynecologist and I have come to the conclusion that all gynecologists should be women.

Gender differences in dentists

Some rather striking differences exist between male and female dentists. Drawing from my own experience and that of other dental staff members, let`s discuss some of those differences:

. Female dentists tend to be more emotional. A common trait of females, in general, is that we tend to be more emotional than males. Our internal feelings run very deep. I once observed a young female dentist become so overwhelmed with frustration as she tried to deal with an unruly child that she exited the operatory in tears. It took her several minutes to regain her composure and return to her work. Although I`ve never seen a male dentist cry, that doesn`t mean men cannot be overcome with frustration. Men tend to express their frustration in other ways or hold it in and explode later. Maybe because dentistry has been such a male-dominated profession for so long, many, young female dentists feel a tremendous pressure to equal or exceed their male counterparts. At first, all new dentists question their abilities after they leave dental school and enter the real world. However, for women, the first couple of years out of dental school can be so physically and emotionally draining that they may even question their career choice.

.Female dentists with children carry a greater burden of responsibility than male dentists do. According to a 1995 survey conducted by the ADA and titled "A Comparison of Male and Female Dentists: Personal and Family Issues," 80 percent of all female dentists with children under 21 consider child care "very important," while only 33 percent of male dentists share similar feelings. Because of home and family needs, many female dentists choose to work only part time. In fact, according to the aforementioned survey, more than 32 percent of female dentists feel that part-time work is "very important," while only 10 percent of male dentists feel the same way. Some female dentists choose to be employed dentists rather than entrepreneurs so they are not bogged down with the business aspects of the practice. This allows them more family time. I personally know two female dentists who are single parents. Both run full-time practices and juggle children and home situations without a spouse. I consider these women to be exceptional women, but I wonder how they manage to "keep it all together." Both women possess great courage and stamina.

.Female dentists often have to deal with condescending attitudes from patients. In my experience and based on what I have heard from other staff people who have worked for female dentists, they tend to be highly sensitive to negative (or what they perceive to be negative) comments. Depending on temperament, some are quick to retort or say hurtful things. However, this is not an exclusively female trait. Male dentists often speak without thinking as well. Female dentists frequently have to endure chauvinistic comments from male patients like "You`re so cute" or "How did a petty lady like you become a dentist?" Many times, I`ve heard patients refer to a young, female dentist as "honey," denying these women professionals the proper respect they deserve. Rarely will you hear patients make comments like this to a male dentist. Female dentists have to learn to deal with disrespectful and chauvinistic comments that frequently evoke feelings of anger and insecurity.

. Staff turnover can be a problem with female dentists. Although male dentists certainly can have turnover problems, this seems to be a particularly worrisome problem with some female dentists. Most female dentists are fiercely independent, and this may be part of the problem. Often, they set a level of perfection for themselves and their staffs that is unattainable. The office atmosphere can become one of paranoia and frustration that finally results in termination or resignation. I`ve had staff people tell me that they would never work with a female dentist again because of traumatic personal experiences.

. Female dentists relate better to their mostly female staff. On the other side of the coin, I`ve interviewed staff members who say they prefer to work with women dentists because of bad experiences with male dentists. Satisfied auxiliaries say they feel the "playing field" is more level with a female boss. These same staff people say their female employers know how to better communicate with them, where the male dentists make them feel subservient. Female staff members feel more at ease discussing problems with a woman employer than they do with a male employer.

. Female dentists tend to be more caring and warm with patients. Maybe it`s the nurturing part of the female nature, but there`s no doubt about it: women dentists, as a rule, are greatly concerned with patient care and comfort. Dissatisfied and satisfied staff alike of female dentists have related to me how caring and compassionate the doctor is with her patients. Female dentists are more likely to express their caring verbally and with actions, such as making end-of-the-day phone calls to check on patients seen that day.

In the final analysis

With either male or female dentists, it all boils down to personality in terms of whether the doctor will be easy or hard to work with. The observations I have made in this article are general in nature, and, certainly, there are exceptions. I can see several areas where female dentists could have a great advantage over their male counterparts.

Females might more easily develop close, personal, even "best friend" relationships with their staff members in ways that would not be appropriate for men. Women dentists also should be better at understanding problems that their mostly female staff members encounter, such as certain medical problems (PMS) and sick children (if the woman dentist is a parent herself).

Both male and female dentists should learn to be sensitive to the needs of their staff and to never take staff members for granted. In return, dental-office employees should be committed to giving their employers the respect and loyalty that they deserve.

Based on the current trend, the future may find many of us working with female dentists. If you`ve had an experience with a female dentist, good or bad, I`d like to hear from you. I can compile all the responses into another article for RDH on this subject. You may e-mail me at [email protected] or "snail mail" me at 2720 New Cut Road, Lexington, NC 27292. I hope to hear from you!

Dianne D. Glasscoe, RDH, BS, has been a hygienist for 20 years and currently is a practice-management consultant based out of Lexington, N.C. Her e-mail address is [email protected].