Let's get one thing straight. I have NOTHING against dental hygienists. As a student, I happily shared classroom space, clinic floors, and celebrations of academic and personal milestones with hygiene students. Now that I’m in private practice, hygienists are an essential part of my success in the dental office. They are my friends, colleagues, and teammates in our shared goal of helping our patients achieve the best dental health possible. I need them. I love them. I respect them.
That said, if one more new patient shakes my hand and asks when the doctor is coming in, I'm going to stab myself in the eye with a discoid-cleoid.
Since I first started seeing patients as a third-year dental student, getting mistaken for an assistant or hygienist has been almost a weekly occurrence. Why is the concept of a female dentist still so hard for some people to grasp in this day and age? Our profession has changed in so many ways since Lucy Hobbs became the first American woman to graduate from dental school in 1866. What used to be a stodgy old boys' club is now an equal-opportunity playing field where smart, talented, and business-savvy women are successful practice owners, powerful policymakers, and active leaders in their communities.
Yet, that hasn’t stopped many a patient (both male AND female) from sharing obtuse comments with me as. “Really? I didn’t know girls could be dentists!” Or, “Oh, when they said ‘Dr. Nguyen’ would be doing the surgery, I just expected you to be a man.”
And then there’s my personal favorite: “I don’t understand why a woman would waste her time and money with all that school and training.”
Over the years, I’ve devoted considerable effort to defending my choice to pursue dentistry as a career. Unfortunately, I think most of my audience tunes out 95% of what I say, choosing instead to come to their own wildly inaccurate conclusions. Despite all my attempts to enlighten them by citing current statistics on women in dentistry and my own personal experiences as a student and clinician, I’ve found that there are many who cling to one or all of the following impressions about female dentists:
1. Women choose dentistry because it is an easier alternative to a career in medicine.
2. Women who go to dental school ultimately just want to practice part-time or become stay-at-home moms, live off their husbands' income, and never have to work hard.
3. ME LIKEY MONEY. DENTISTS MAKEY MONEY. GIVE ME MONEY. MONEY MONEY!
I’m not going to sit here and pretend like there has never been ONE female dentist who entered this profession after failing to gain entrance to medical school and deciding to change gears. I can’t say that no woman has ever been attracted to dentistry because it has demonstrated high earning potential. And I certainly can’t say that there aren’t any girls out there who make it a goal to pick up an MRS while they’re working towards their DDS. But I firmly believe that, for the vast majority of women dentists, the decision to pursue a career in dentistry is a highly personal one motivated by a multitude of complex factors that are unique to our own individual upbringings, personalities, and life ambitions. There’s a lot more to it—and us—than we’re given credit for.
Growing up, I got to witness firsthand what life is really like for a medical doctor. My father is a senior attending in anesthesiology at a large hospital in New York. Though his job literally gives him the opportunity to save lives on a daily basis and afforded our family a relatively comfortable lifestyle, it has not come without major personal sacrifices.
Because of the demands of his occupation, he routinely missed holidays, recitals, soccer games, and many other events that make raising children and having a family of your own so wonderful. When he WAS home, he was typically exhausted and/or unable to do anything that he couldn’t leave at a moment’s notice in case his pager went off. My mother went to so many parent-teacher conferences alone that it was years before my school realized that my folks had been together and living in the same house all along.
As much as I respected my father for his incredible work, I knew that I didn’t want that kind of professional life for myself. I wanted a job that was equal parts science, creativity, and service to others. I wanted more flexibility, more work-life balance, and more face time with my family, friends, and community. I felt that ,as a dentist, I would be more likely to have better control over my schedule and a greater ability to construct the career and life I wanted.
That didn’t mean that attaining my goal was going to be any less challenging. Dental school is by no means an "easy" alternative to medical school. The admissions process for both medicine and dentistry is similarly rigorous, cutthroat, and expensive. The same anxiety levels, constant fear of failure, and lack of sleep that haunt physicians during their years of school and residency as they struggle to memorize a seemingly endless deluge of information, train their hands to expertly wield surgical instruments, and pass their board exams also plague dentists in an equally daunting and unforgiving fashion.
Both paths require a thick skin for criticism, the ability to persevere in the face of adversity, and the mental clarity to make decisions quickly and adapt to change under duress. In practice, both physicians and dentists deal with stress, fatigue, and the multitude of pressures that come with being responsible for another person's well-being. Whether you are male or female, no doctor has it easy.
You would think that by the time I graduated from dental school and began a residency program at a level 1 trauma center, people would have no problem recognizing that I had achieved full-fledged tooth doctor status, and thus would be privy to all the rights, privileges, and respect that my male counterparts enjoy, right? WRONG! A few months into my GPR, an attending at the hospital commented, “It’s a shame that women like you who’ll eventually want to work part-time or give up their jobs so they can have kids take up spots in dental school classes that could go to men who’d work full-time and be more productive members of this profession.”
Yeah. That happened.
Without downplaying the truly archaic and sexist attributes of his flippant remarks, let’s address the part of that statement that really burns me. I deeply resent the notion that a woman who chooses to make adjustments to her professional life that may allow her to commit more time and energy to a family or other personal interests could ever be considered unproductive and/or not working to her full potential. I also have a huge problem with our culture’s perception that a stay-at-home mother does not work hard or have the ability to make valuable contributions to society.
Feel free to disagree with me, but my personal belief is that if a woman makes the very personal decision to have children, the greatest contribution she can make to the future is to raise her children to be kind souls who understand the importance of education, tolerance, and fairness for all people. If this is her goal as a parent, then she deserves the respect and support of others, no matter how she sets out to accomplish it and what she does or does not choose to give up in the process.
Lastly, anyone who thinks that being a dentist means that I spend my days off swimming in piles of money, à la Scrooge McDuck, should speak to my accountant, who had an exceptionally good laugh doing my taxes last week.
Reality television has a tendency to portray the lives of doctors and their families as a frothy whirlwind of walk-in closets, designer accessories, and sprawling real estate. While this may be a true reflection of life for some very successful healthcare professionals, for many others, it’s a mere droplet in a vast pool of existence that has far greater depth than those wading only in the shallow end can appreciate. For every doctor who frequents glitzy charity functions in the name of self-promotion and elevating social status, there are a hundred more who are making tremendous contributions to our world by participating in research, shaping healthcare reform, advocating for patient rights, teaching at the predoctoral or postdoctoral level, and performing pro bono treatment without expecting any compensation or recognition in return.
But back to the plight of women in dentistry. It seems that the overarching problem that arises with having to constantly correct those who automatically assume that I must be playing a supporting role in the practice is that it reflects a culture that is still not accustomed to seeing women take the lead. There are still a lot of people who are uncomfortable with the idea of a female in charge, and I suspect that this is because there still aren’t enough people out there telling young girls that they can and deserve to be.
A woman who chooses to enter the dental profession is declaring to the world that she has the drive, intellect, and confidence to handle the formidable task of charting the course of her professional destiny. She can suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism and ignorance while setting her sights on success and achieving her personal definition of what it means to have it all. She can aim unapologetically high.
Honestly, what woman WOULDN’T want that?
Diana Nguyen, DDS