Charting a course for more women in industry leadership roles
By Lori Noga, DMD, Founder & CEO of Tranquility Dental Wellness
Working in a male-dominated space is not a new dynamic to me. Before I entered dentistry, I worked as an actuary, navigating my career through corporate America.
Medicine appealed to me. But so did work/life balance. I wanted to be able to have a career but also have flexibility to spend time with my family and kids. Ultimately that was a determining factor in choosing to enroll at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine in Boston. This was over 15 years ago. I was part of the first class in school history to have more women than men. The ratio wasn’t large – we barely tipped the scale at 51% to 49% – but it did signal the beginning of a trend.
Where has that trend landed us more than a decade later? My own experiences throughout lead me to believe we’ve made progress, but we still have plenty of work to do. After dental school, I went into the Navy (another male-dominated space) as a dental officer to complete my obligations for the military scholarship I earned in dental school. Upon completing my time in the Navy, my husband and I moved to his hometown in western Washington, and I was on the hunt for a practice to buy.
I worked hard at networking, trying to get my name out there in the dental space, and I even had an “in” in the community. My father-in-law was a long-standing dentist in the town we moved to. But even with the connections he would give me, I was still being shut out. At the time, I never thought of it as a gender bias. But no matter how hard I tried, it was impossible to get a foot in the door.
Eventually, I decided to do a startup. My office was born out of frustration with the system. I know I’m not alone. When I look back at my graduating class from dental school, it is jam-packed with like-minded women who went the start-up route rather than becoming part of a group practice or buying one.
There could be many factors to that. Women go into the dental field because they want to have more control over their time and their careers. Personally, I felt like if I built my own office, I would control my own schedule. I could make it work around my life. I felt empowered to create my own future. And I couldn’t wait to create opportunity for my future team to be empowered and offer a place where women could be supported in their own personal growth and development.
As I worked to build my first de novo, I saw some old ways of thinking continually rise to the surface. I wanted to be a part of the local dental societies, but found them to be male dominated and unwelcoming. There were rarely, if ever, any women at the meetings. At one dental society meeting I sat down at a table full of men, introduced myself, and the group proceeded to get up and sit somewhere else. Since dental school, I have been on the receiving end of harassing, demoralizing, and inexcusable actions by male colleagues. Sadly, but not shockingly, I am not alone.
Frustrated and lonely on my journey, I sought out other ways to connect with like-minded dentists, longing to find my “place,” my tribe, or anyone I could relate to. This led me to eventually branching outside of dentistry and joining other organizations that are geared towards female entrepreneurs and business owners.
Today, I do see more and more women owning practices, or at least I have more awareness of them than when I started. Patients – both men and women – like being seen by female dentists. I don’t know if it’s just that women have a different chairside manner, or they’re more empathetic. Whatever the characteristics, women are definitely in high demand from a patient’s perspective.
As an industry, we’ve made progress. But we can do much better. From a sheer numbers standpoint, organized dentistry doesn’t yet reflect a high enough percentage of women in leadership roles to mirror the number of women in dentistry. Women make up the majority of support teams in a typical dental office (think hygienists, assistants, and administrative team), but are grossly underrepresented at the top.
Women need better representation at local, state and national levels of dental organizations. These organizations could benefit from seeking out their participation and input. Not only do women see their careers differently than men, the challenges woman dentist-owners face are vastly different than those of men. Women often bring a unique perspective to challenges. Women tend to lead from a place of deep connection to their teams and their patients. I would argue that welcoming a women’s voice to the conversations around how we, as a profession, can work to elevate the dental outcomes and experiences for patients to how we can evolve dentistry to be the leading profession in the healthcare sector, to how we can really elevate women by understanding their unique skills, abilities, and needs is one worth considering.
Tides are shifting. Women dentists are going to outnumber male dentists in the very near future.
It’s time to start working together, open the dialogue between men and women, and begin the hard work of leveling the playing field. Will we get there? YES! And I can’t wait. I began my career in dentistry as part of a trail blazing class full of women dentists, but there’s a lot of trail still left to blaze. Moving an entire industry forward by elevating women is important work and a monumental task. I welcome you to join me on this journey!
Lori Noga, DMD
Dr. Lori Noga is the founder and CEO of Tranquility Dental Wellness Center, a rare woman dentist-owned dental group located in western Washington. Her concept of “Experience Affordable Luxury” began as a single, de novo dental practice with 2 employees. With her business prowess and a passion for empowering her team, she quickly grew it to a multi-location, multi-million-dollar enterprise in 5 short years, earning a spot on the cover of Dental Economics magazine in April of 2018 and on the INC 5000 Fastest Growing Companies list in 2019. Other accolades include being recognized as “An Icon Of Dentistry” by Ultradent in 2020 and on the Group Dentistry Now’s “Top 10 DSOs to Watch” list in 2019.