By Susan Richards
The practice of dentistry has been a necessity – and eventually a business – for eons, with women undoubtedly providing their share of oral healthcare throughout time. However, they weren’t recognized as formal members of the dental profession in the United States until 1855, after Emeline Roberts Jones taught herself the basic skills and eventually joined her husband’s practice.
In the 19th century, it was difficult enough for women to get a foothold in careers that required an education, let alone earn gender-equal salaries. When Lucy Hobbs Taylor became the first woman to earn a dental degree in 1866, many dental schools were defiant about even accepting female students.
The question of equal pay would have to come later.
We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby
There was a societal shift in the workforce during World War II when women took over many jobs in the U.S. As a result, feminist movements continued to burgeon into the 1960s and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was approved by Congress in 1972—although it was originally introduced in 1923 and to date, only 38 states have ratified the ERA for inclusion in the Constitution.
“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
Unfortunately, the proposed amendment has not resolved the substantial income gap between men and women in this country. As the role of women in the workplace has grown through the decades, this has included dentistry and other professions that require significant education and postgrad training.
According to a 2017 study by the American Dental Association (ADA), women only made up 3% of all dentists in 1982, but now account for 32% of the profession, based on U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) statistics. These numbers are expected to continue to rise, as nearly half of dental school graduates in 2018 were women.
In spite of the gender gap for dentists themselves, women dominate the oral health profession – although not always financially. According to the DOL Women’s Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
- 93.9% of registered dental hygienists are women.
- 93.3% of dental assistants are women.
- 85.2% of dental office managers are women.
- 53.3% of dental and ophthalmic lab technicians are women.
…But Not Far Enough
The exponential gains for women in the dental industry are encouraging. However, that same ADA study revealed that the income for females in dentistry has not kept up with females in legal and medical professions. While the gender pay gap is well-documented in this country, the researchers found “large, unaccountable earnings differences … after multivariate adjustments,” which included an unexplained difference of 62% to 66% for female dentists.
In other words, by factoring in the important variables that potentially impact salary—such as age, race or ethnicity, marital status, children, hours worked, if self-employed—the team could still not account for a portion of the gap.
While the largest gap between male ($143,900) and women dentists ($65,700) was in 1990, the chasm remains.
Current DOL statistics show median annual earnings of $167,574 for men and $140,040 for women, which means women doing equal work earn 83.6% of their male counterparts.
Race and Diversity
Diversity was among the variables included in the ADA census, finding women dentists to be more racially varied than their male counterparts represented. As one of only three women graduating from the University of Michigan College of Dentistry in 1890, Ida Gray Nelson Rollins was the first Black female dentist in the U.S. As previously reported in the Incisor, only 3.8% of today’s dentists are Black and the majority of Black dentists are male, further widening the gender pay gap.
Additionally, Black dentists often treat more underserved populations and accept Medicaid with more regularity, resulting in lower fees.
Women and Essential Work
What researchers couldn’t foretell in 2017 was that a global pandemic would further alter the entire landscape of gender parity in the workplace.
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), women have been far more likely than men to take time off or leave their employment altogether during the pandemic. A staggering nine out of 10 women have left the international labor force to care for families, and aren’t considered unemployed, but “inactive.”
In March 2021, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that women in this country represent a majority of “essential workers” in several crucial occupations, including healthcare and education. Women earned 82 cents to each dollar earned by men in 2019, however, the post-pandemic gender pay gap is anyone’s guess. And because dentistry is not a work-from-home proposition, we could very well see previous gains for female dental professionals backslide.
Closing the Gap
Fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic will have ongoing repercussions on the workforce, but it doesn’t have to be all bad. Many employers and employees have a renewed appreciation for the benefits of flexibility and family priorities—for both men and women.
We’re also seeing new laws and regulations enacted around the country designed to protect equal pay for equal work. These trends include prohibiting employers from inquiring or basing a candidate’s pay on their salary history. Numerous states have added or beefed-up transparency laws that allow employees to discuss their pay with each other at their own discretion, without penalty.
The benefits of equal pay in the industry are many, including promoting an organization’s values, increasing employee motivation, and ultimately attracting the best talent–regardless of gender. By focusing on skill and experience, equal pay for equal work in dentistry will create a stronger workforce that's advantageous for the profession and patients.
Author: Susan Richards is a staff writer at DOCS Education. With over 20 years of experience in local journalism and business marketing, Susan’s career includes award-winning feature writing, as well as creating content with context for a wide variety of industries.