Entering the Danger: One Man’s Opinion on Gender Equality in Dentistry

By Dr. Eric J. Roman, Partner, DEO

Whether you’re a dental student, practice owner, or executive, it shouldn’t take long for you to recognize the gender inequalities that are pervasive in our industry. Recognition of this truth is great. But addressing the issue that exists in the dental industry is essential if you want to run a successful dental business in our changing times. 

As a man, discussing issues related to gender inequality in the workplace can be not just uncomfortable – it is oftentimes downright scary. 

I’ll confess: This is a topic that makes me uncomfortable. Despite the fact that my executive teams were more female than male, I still really struggled to feel confident in these conversations.

Why was I so uncomfortable? Let’s postulate some reasons. However, I’m not justifying my actions or emotions. I’m just sharing them, hoping to make this topic more approachable for everyone on your team.   

Perhaps one of the first reasons that I sidestepped the topic was the prevalence of news articles and social media posts publicly vilifying men for saying the “wrong thing” regarding gender equality issues. I wanted the best for my people, but I certainly didn’t want to upset anyone or draw “undue” attention by saying something that would be perceived as inappropriate or inconsiderate.

You see, as a society we’ve created these standards for how we discuss gender issues in the workplace. There are even appropriate vocabulary terms. The trouble is, not all of us are aware of the appropriate terminology or discussion standards. It’s not like we have posters on our walls describing what to say and what not to say. Even if we did, based on my experience, those posters would change regularly.   

Out of the fear I might say something wrong, I chose to say nothing at all. And saying nothing solved nothing.

Thankfully, I’m not a representation of all men on this topic. But, I know I’m not alone in calling out my fear of engagement. And fear isn’t a valid excuse for not contributing towards improving gender equality. It’s definitely a challenge we can and must overcome. 

Luckily, there are ways to overcome this fear and open up a healthy conversation surrounding gender equality in the dental service industry, which I’ll get to in this article.

But first, let’s understand why gender equality in the dental industry is such an important issue to discuss. 

Women are the majority of the dental field, except in executive leadership 

Prior to the 1980s, almost all dental school graduates were men. But now, graduating dental school classes are 50% or more female – showing a huge change in the gender balance within this sector. 

Despite this massive increase in the number of women choosing careers as dentists, the makeup of our auxiliary support teams has always been predominately female. Between our dental assistants, hygienists, administrative teams, and managers, most dental company’s teams end up being 70% to 90% women.

However, a few of our traditionally male-dominated roles haven’t shifted nearly as much: the executive leadership of our DSOs, and our conference and continuing education presenters. Look at the executives in the DSO you most recently studied. Look at the speaker roster for the upcoming conference. Are they men or women? 

Though there has definitely been an increase in women’s leadership within the dental industry over the past 15 or so years, I’m still witnessing huge gender imbalances in a few areas. For the sake of my experience and desire for change, the remainder of this article will focus on addressing the prevalence of women at the executive level. 

Let’s be clear: I want this to change. And if you’re a man in this industry, you should want it to change too. Here’s why.

The issue with gender imbalance at the executive level

If you didn’t already know, not having enough female representation at an executive level in your dental organization isn’t a good thing. It has several negative implications for your company, including the following:

Decreases leadership effectiveness. It’s possible that when the gender balance of your dental executives doesn’t match that of your workforce, it can create an “us vs. them” mentality, where the women in your workplace don’t feel as though they’re treated fairly – decreasing performance and increasing turnover.

Makes attracting female talent difficult. When it comes to dentistry, the future is overwhelmingly female. At the same time, the struggle for talent is real. So if your executive leadership team doesn’t reflect the new gender balance, you might have trouble attracting top dental talent to your organization. 

Women executives’ voices aren’t heard. I’ve hired executive women who talked about how their voice was less important at the leadership table. And if they were ever asked for their opinion? It didn’t matter as much as the men speaking at the table. If this is happening in your organization, you are missing out on massive upside.

Women executives aren’t paid as much. Assessing pay structures within the executive leadership level, we’ve seen discrepancies in how much men and women are paid. Not only is this just plain wrong, but this pay gap can also have disastrous effects, from a mass exodus of dental talent to legal action being taken against your company. If there is a legitimate gender-based pay gap, one way or another, you are going to pay up.  And the process won’t be fun.

Women executives aren’t given credit. Did you know that women are less likely to be given credit for their achievements in executive dentistry positions? Male performance is often viewed more positively than a female’s. Don’t even get me started on men stealing credit from their women counterparts! The cost to your company is the decrease in contributions these exceptional leaders make in the future.

Women executives are judged differently. Some interesting research from Sheryl Sandberg shows that likability and success are positively correlated with men but negatively correlated with women! So the more successful women are, the less likable they’re perceived to be. 

If you weren’t aware of the above issues with gender inequality, then it’s seriously time to educate yourself on what women go through in the workplace. We must recognize that these gender inequality issues stem from generations of conditioning and learned biases. 

And it’s up to us to undo them if we want to become true allies to our women colleagues and tap into the enormous upside your company can experience. Here’s how to approach the topic of gender inequality in your own dental practice to improve leadership effectiveness. 

How to promote gender equality in your dental organization

When promoting gender equality, we need to get comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations with our male and female colleagues. Here are the steps you should take to approach these conversations.

Step No. 1: Assess the data

Acknowledge where you are by looking at your company’s data and asking yourself some hard questions. 

  • Are the women dental professionals in my company being paid the same as men in the same position? 
  • How many external women executives have I hired compared to those who worked their way up? (You’ll find most women had to work their way up in comparison to men!)
  • Am I just as open to hiring an externally qualified executive leader who is a woman as I am a man?
  • How many complaints have been lodged by women regarding gender inequality or harassment?
  • Does the gender balance of my executive team reflect that of the broader dental organization?

Step No. 2: Uncover biases 

You must consider the biases within you personally against women leaders and women in general, as well as the biases within team members at your company. 

For example:

  • Do you frown upon assertive women?
  • Are you judging mothers differently to fathers?
  • Are men listening properly to their women leaders? 
  • Do you assume men know more than women? 

Important note! Men are not the only ones with biases toward women. Some people believe that women exact just as much or more gender discrimination against women than men do.

Step No. 3: Start the conversation

If you want to move your company more effectively into the future and hire quality talent, you need to train men to comfortably and effectively engage in these conversations with women. 

I’m going to address the elephant in the room, which is the risk of opening up these conversations and ending up with a bigger, more obvious problem than before you started the conversation. 

To avoid this, make sure you ask for constructive support and the space to make mistakes while you are still learning, and use the following strategy to approach the conversation about gender inequality in your organization. 

Set goals. Set intentional goals for the changes you want to see within your dental organization as a result of having discussions about gender inequality. 

Avoid penalties. Instead of punishing members of your team for their shortcomings regarding gender bias or inequality, make them aware of all the prejudices that could affect them.

Be open. Let your colleagues know what the gender-related issues in your workplace currently are and how you wish to tackle them with open, honest communication. And be willing to ask them what they see.

Disarm yourself. One of the best tools for having difficult conversations is the concept of disarming, whereby first pointing out what worries you about bringing up a particular subject. 

Step No. 4: Ask for feedback 

The only way to get a true lay of the land when it comes to gender inequality in the workplace is to ask those in your dental organization for their thoughts, feedback, and opinions. 

You could send out an anonymous survey, host group discussions, and even interview team members 1:1 to understand their feelings on gender equality and how the balance of gender at the executive level impacts them. 

Test out the following script: “Hello _____! As you know, I only want the best for our company and our people. I’ve been reading more and more about gender discrepancies in leadership and how much of a negative impact it could have on our future. And I have to admit that I probably have biases in my perspective. What do you think I might be missing or overlooking regarding our women in leadership roles?”

Step No. 5: Implement changes

It’s only possible to have these tough conversations in your dental organization if you’re going to take action. Make sure you actively implement feedback from your team members and create strategies to address gender inequality in your workplace. 

And finally … please be gentle

Men, I know this might not be easy. Women, please show us grace and offer up support as we step into this truth. As healthcare professionals, we’ve always wanted what’s best for our patients and our people. Sometimes the only way to get there is through some tough conversations. I hope I’ve convinced you that it’s worth it and given you the confidence to enter the danger. As we engage a more appropriate representation of women in our executive teams, our entire industry and the world at large will be the beneficiaries.

Dr. Eric J Roman

I’m your heart-centered dental coach, inspiring change and manifesting impact to help you create a better future for your dental practice and the dental industry at large. Ready for stronger teams, happier patients, and surging growth? Let’s talk.