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04 • Analysis



The number of women entering the profession has grown steadily in recent years. SoundBite editor Sameera Teli investigates


MUST say it is a nice change to have a young lady as my dentist.”

These were the words of a recent elderly patient of mine. He had been attending the practice, which I had just joined, since he was a young man. As I mused over his comment, I thought back to the

changes the practice had undergone over the years and discovered that there had indeed only ever been male dentists here. Yet within the last two years, the practice now has a female dentist majority. This gender shift is reflected more widely across the profession and is changing the face of the dental workforce, raising many questions along the way.

Men only Things have come a long way since the late 19th century when only men were allowed to qualify as dentists. The 1897 census in England counted 116 women dentists, but none held a Licence in Dental Surgery (LDS). Just two years previous in 1895 Lilian Murray (later Lindsay) attained her LDS in Edinburgh, becoming Britain’s first qualified female dentist. But her career path was not easy. She had first applied to the National

Dental Hospital in London but was refused entry to the building to attend her interview for fear of distracting the male students. Needless to say her admission to study there was also declined. Fortunately Lilian was welcomed north of the border and she went on

to graduate with honours from the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. It wasn’t until 17 years later that women were finally allowed to sit dental examinations in England. Even though women dentists gradually became a more accepted

presence, research shows that as late as the 1960s they were still being encouraged to enter certain branches of dentistry. Fields such as maternity, child welfare and school health services were considered more suited to women.

Women on the rise Since then, things have changed significantly. A study of the career development of male and female dentists published in the British Dental Journal in 2000 showed that in 1975 up to a quarter of new dentists were

female. Today more than half of UK dental students are female and by 2020 it is estimated that over half the dental workforce will be female. This is also true outside the UK, with an upward trend in female dentists worldwide. As a young female dentist, I wonder how this gradual feminisation of

dentistry will impact our futures, and the significant consequences it will have for the wider workforce. The NHS Dental Statistics for England 2012/13 report revealed

significant gender differences in relation to the age of dental professionals, hinting at how the profession is likely to change in the years ahead. The under-35 age group is largely female (56.1 per cent) while the majority (76.4 per cent) of dentists aged over 55 are male. In the past, dentistry’s big decision-makers have overwhelmingly been older men but it is notable that the General Dental Council has appointed its first female chief executive, Evlynne Gilvarry. Of all the 128 British Dental Association presidents since 1880, only five have been women, the first being Lilian Lindsay in 1946.

Planning for change GDC figures of the current specialist lists show that although female dentists represent the majority in dental public health, paediatric dentistry and special care dentistry, men continue to dominate all other specialist fields. What will happen once this predominantly older male cohort of dentists retires? The increasing number of female dentists makes it imperative that

women be recognised as vital for the future workforce. But will training pathways need to be restructured to accommodate the different needs of female dentists? Should they be? In a recent Q&A with MDDUS Summons magazine, the BDA’s Judith Husband said: “Research has consistently demonstrated women dentists tend to see fewer patients, spend more time with patients, are less likely to own practices and will take career breaks. Society and legislation have moved to support both partners in relationships with caring responsibilities with paternity leave. “The generally accepted trend is that the profession will be less

productive in terms of volume of clinical work and this has a significant impact for workforce planning.”

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