By Jane Schmucker
From the time she was 4-years-old, Lauren Olsen dreamed of being a dentist.
But a college adviser was among those who urged her to choose a different career path. Taking his advice, she graduated from Brigham Young University (BYU) earlier this year with a degree in public health.
“He looked at me and was like, ‘You know, if you’re a dentist, you’ll have a really hard time being a mom,'” Olsen recounted to the BYU student newspaper. “I left and just cried a lot.”
In the case of Jennifer Brown, who set her sights on attending the Creighton University School of Dentistry in Omaha, it was her mother who did the crying. “I just want you to be able to focus on having your family,” her mom pleaded, according to an account in The Deseret News.
Nationally, roughly 30 percent of all dentists are women, a percentage that has steadily been climbing. Indeed, many dental schools report that half or more of their students are women. The Ohio State University, for example, accepted 67 women and 53 men to begin classes in August 2018 in Columbus.
But the United States is a diverse country.
So while it’s not at all unusual to find female dentists in the East and South – 42 percent of dentists in the District of Columbia are women, Massachusetts has 38 percent, and Maryland 36 percent, according to the American Dental Association – in a few states, female dentists are still almost a rarity.
The ADA says women number just under 6 percent of dentists practicing in Utah and about 9 percent in Idaho. The Utah Medical Education Council puts the state’s female workforce percentage even lower in dentistry, counting just over 4 percent in 2017, up from 2 ½ percent in 2012. (Numbers likely vary in part because dentists who practice in more than one state get counted in each state in which they practice by the dental association.)
The big difference in Utah and Idaho might be related to stories like Olsen’s and Brown’s.
Kendra Law, president of BYU Women in Dentistry, a group that Olsen established in response to her own experience, says among the factors that discourage some women from pursuing careers in dentistry is the high priority that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints puts on the role of women in family life.
Any link between the church and the number of female dentists in Utah and Idaho can be a touchy subject, and not everyone in the club’s leadership is eager to be quoted on the matter, fearing misinterpretation could cast a bad light on the church.
Law, a junior at BYU, said the group is focused on trying to combat the issue of low numbers of female dentists rather than figuring out why more area women haven’t gone into dentistry in the past. But the crux of the matter appears to be that while many young LDS women graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree, the priority is for them to then marry and care for children, with the college degree seen largely as an insurance policy to fall back on in hard times.
The huge additional investment in time and money that dental school involves doesn’t necessarily fit with that traditional outlook.
“A big part of our church is the family unit,” Law says. But she’s convinced though that dentistry is an ideal choice for science-oriented women who also want to be mothers.
At Columbia University, Dr. Dennis Mitchell, vice provost for faculty diversity and inclusion and a professor of dental medicine, seconds that sentiment wholeheartedly.
“It is an outstanding profession for anyone when it comes to quality of life,” he says, mentioning how often dentistry tops magazine lists for a combination of high pay, predictable hours, low stress, and other factors that contribute to a good life. He says dentistry draws a higher percentage of women nationally than many other top-paying careers that require years of expensive education beyond college.
It’s often far easier for a dentist to work only three or four days a week, allowing for more family time than it is for those in other medical specialties or for lawyers or engineers, he notes. The difference, Dr. Mitchell adds, is that dentistry is still practiced primarily in the private sector, which gives dentists the freedom and flexibility to set not only their own hours but their own days.
Nothing Further from the Truth
At the University of Maryland School of Dentistry, Dr. Mary Beth Aichelmann-Reidy, division chief of periodontics, says, “First off, there’s nothing further from the truth, that you can’t be a mother and a dentist.” You guessed it: Dr. Aichelmann-Reidy, who was president of the American Association of Women Dentists in 2013, is saying that from personal experience.
“I truly went into this with the idea that I could do a better job than a man,” she says. Example, please? “Well, their hands are huge,” she points out, as she explains how much more miserable some procedures can become with a large hand in the patient’s mouth.
Law, the Brigham Young club leader, says she’s never been discouraged from studying dentistry. But a few young men have told her they prefer to date women who aren’t quite so “ambitious.” She, however, sees the idea of getting more women interested in dentistry in her region as being good for everyone.
Some patients see female dentists as less scary than their male counterparts. Women are often thought of as being more intuitively sympathetic and perhaps feel more adept at putting young children at ease in a dental chair. And for the female dentist, the ability to set a work schedule that can coordinate with family life is big.
Thus, the BYU Women in Dentistry’s Facebook page is heavy on announcements that read much like this one, which is paired with a picture of a beautiful woman standing close to a man and holding a baby: “Mama. Dentist. Drill team coach. Come learn about how you can do it all, too.”
Or this one, which pairs another radiantly beautiful woman with several young girls, and this announcement: “You're probably wondering how you'll balance having a family and a career. Check out this cool article with statistics on the real, incredible impact of working mothers on their children. (SPOILER ALERT: the benefits outweigh the perceived risks.)”
Many dental schools have women’s clubs, along with a host of other clubs where students can find a niche, says Dr. Sylvia Frazier-Bowers, assistant dean of inclusive excellence and equity initiatives at the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry. But what she calls Utah’s “very unique culture," can add a twist to the experience of some female dentist wannabes who would be far more unusual in much of the rest of the country.
The Women in Dentistry club at BYU held its first meeting in November 2016, attended by five women, including Olsen and Law. More recent meetings have drawn 10 to 15 women, and the club has an email list of 65 and a Facebook page with 101 likes.
Unlike Olsen and Brown, Law says her family has been more than supportive of her desire to become a dentist. “Ever since I was a kid, I loved teeth, as weird as that sounds,” she says.
As for anyone who says it might not be seemly for a young woman to devote herself to the study of dentistry instead of solely to bearing and raising children, Law says, “I personally say, ‘I don’t care what they think.’"
Olsen, having recently graduated from BYU, is now taking classes at Utah Valley University in an effort to complete the prerequisites so that she can apply to dental school next year. Despite her detour into public health, Olsen came to realize that dentistry has been her life’s calling all along.
And Brown, whose mother cried when she learned her daughter wanted to become a dentist? Well, Dr. Brown did graduate from the Creighton University School of Dentistry and is part of the team at Hillfield Pediatric & Family Dentistry in Layton, Utah.
The worries expressed by Dr. Brown’s mother proved for naught. Her daughter, the dentist, is married and has five boys.
Author: Contributing writer Jane Schmucker is a veteran journalist who has covered health and business topics. Now freelancing, she reported and edited for more than 22 years at The Blade (Toledo, Ohio). She has also worked on the rewrite desk for USA Today in Arlington, VA.
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