WOMEN WILL SOON MAKE UP ONE-THIRD OF AMERICA’S DENTISTS. SO WHY AREN’T THERE MORE IN LEADERSHIP POSTS THROUGHOUT THE INDUSTRY?
By Elizabeth Dilts
ONE EVENING ABOUT 20 years ago, Dr. Betsy Bakeman sat down to dinner with her two young daughters at their Michigan home feeling
a little overwhelmed.
Her husband, an orthopedic surgeon, was on call at the hospital where he worked; he frequently had to leave Dr. Bakeman and the girls at home when the phone rang with an emergency. Dr. Bakeman had been having child-care difficulties: a spate of babysitter cancellations that forced her to reschedule patient appointments at the last minute. If one of the girls got sick, everything got even harder.
The University of Michigan graduate was working two days a week at the dental practice where she was an associate. But she was struggling with worries that keep many working moms up at night: Was she letting her patients and colleagues down by not being the professional she wanted to be? Was she letting her daughters down by not being there for them when they needed her?
“I sat down at the dinner table, and I said maybe I should just
quit practicing,” Dr. Bakeman recalls telling her now-grown daughters. When the babysitters were on time and the kids were healthy, her
work and personal lives seemed to motor along smoothly in tandem. “But when you have child-care issues or your children are sick, you think something has to give.”
One of her daughters looked up from her dinner plate and asked Dr. Bakeman who would take care of her patients if she were to leave dentistry. She answered that they would probably move on,
as patients do all the time under a variety of circumstances.
“But Mommy, there’s no one like you,” her daughter replied.
(Cue swelling strings.)
“I was stunned,” Dr. Bakeman says with a laugh. “I’m sure it meant nothing to them. That they didn’t realize what they said. But to me, it made me realize they were actually proud of me.”
FAST-FORWARD 20 years, and Dr. Bakeman no longer feels the stress-inducing split between her commitments to her personal life and her career. Her daughters are now 25 and 28; the younger of the two is finishing her last year of medical school in Seattle, and the older is a lawyer in Michigan.
Dr. Bakeman’s solo practice in Grand Rapids, Michigan, meanwhile, is thriving, and she has begun to find herself with time to give back. She has received honors for excellence in continuing education from the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry and Dentistry Today; she served as a past chairman of the AACD accreditation committee; and she’s developing a new course on how to sculpt diagnostic wax models for the Kois Center in Seattle.
Her past struggle to balance her work and personal life is common to professionals of both sexes, of course, but it’s the most frequently cited reason female dentists give for not taking on extra obligations, such as leadership roles.
Dentistry is undergoing a seismic shift as it prepares to welcome more young dentists and female dentists than the industry has ever had. Women made up less than 3 percent of dentists in 1980, but in 2020 — four short years away — they’ll make up more than a third, according to an analysis from the American Dental Association Health Policy Institute.
Those numbers will no doubt be boosted by the fact that more than half of dental-school graduates are now women, and by the growing number of dental hygienists (95 percent female) who are becoming dentists as well.
But there’s a shortage at the top. Female dentists over age 55 made up just 19 percent of the industry population last year. Well over half of female dentists are under age 44 — the prime time of life, in other words, for getting one’s career off the ground and starting a family.
Women are underrepresented in positions of leadership throughout dentistry as well — a fact that might well be closely linked to the ones in the paragraph above. There are few women on the leadership teams of large corporate dental practices. Only 18 percent of dental-school deans are women, and just 17 percent of state dental-society presidents are, according to Dr. Carol Gomez Summerhays, president of the ADA.
“I’m proud of the progress we’ve made, but women are still far from being equally represented in leadership roles in dentistry,” says Dr. Gomez Summerhays, who recalls that fewer than one in 20 dentists was female in 1978, when she reported for active duty with the Navy Dental Corps in San Diego. “There is a need for female dentist mentors, leadership development and networking that provide women with support to succeed in leadership roles. The responsibility for promoting gender balance and diversity rests with each of us.”
To be sure, female representation among dental-industry leaders is currently better than it ever has been. Dr. Gomez Summerhays, for example, is the third consecutive woman to lead the ADA.
Dr. Bakeman, 55, has been practicing for 33 years and says she never encountered any particular barriers to ascending to her position as a leader in continuing education. On the contrary, she got a great deal of encouragement from colleagues and predecessors, male and female.
But the numbers of women getting into leadership seem to be growing arithmetically more than geometrically, Dr. Bakeman and others said. Considering that dentistry is better poised than many other industries to reflect gender parity at all levels thanks to its strong pipeline of female dental graduates, why isn’t it doing better?
About 25 percent of executives and senior-level managers at the nation’s S&P 500 companies are women, according to Catalyst, an advocacy group that promotes the interests of women in business leadership. Comparable statistics for corporate dentistry are scarce, but gender parity appears to be spotty at the top of the U.S.’s biggest corporate-dentistry groups.
“I’m proud of the progress we’ve made, but women are still far from being equally represented in leadership roles in dentistry.”
Out of seven executive vice presidents at Heartland Dental, the largest dental-support organization (DSO) in the U.S., only one is a woman: DeAnn McClain, who is executive VP of operational services. (The group does have three women, two of whom are dentists, on its 21-person national advisory board.) McClain is not a dentist herself, but she’s gladdened by the fact that 39 percent of Heartland’s supported dentists are women.
“I’m currently the only female executive vice president [at Heartland],” she says, “but I do think that number will increase as our female vice presidents and directors continue to advance in their careers.”
Aspen Dental Management, the country’s second-largest DSO, says it has six women across its executive team, practice-support center and divisional vice presidents — a number that constitutes just under half of the leaders in those groups, according to an Aspen Dental spokeswoman, who did not break down how many of those women were dentists.
“The stage is set for us to be better at this than many other industries,” says Charles Cohen, Benco Dental’s managing director. “That we don’t [have more women in leadership roles than other industries] makes it an even bigger black eye.”
KEVIN HENRY, group editorial director for UBM Medica Dental Division, which publishes Dental Products Report and other industry newsletters, says the ascent of women into senior leadership roles is “moving about
as fast as an iceberg.
“You’re looking at the dental industry becoming a women’s world,” he continues. “But a lot of companies out there are behind that curve.”
Across the decades, after all, dental-product companies and practice-management advisers, among others, made their living by knowing precisely what Baby Boomers wanted and what they would do with their practice some day, Henry says.
No figures specifically address how much of the dental economy will likely skew toward female professionals in the years and decades ahead. However, Henry argues that in order for businesses to be in the same advantageous position with future dentists as they are with today’s, they’ll need to put women in positions of thought leadership. Who else will be able
to make truly informed decisions about how to market and sell to women?
Dr. Lee Ann Brady says she has directly benefited from such foresight. In 2005, the Pankey Institute in Florida hired her away from private practice to become its first female resident faculty member. Within a year, she was promoted to clinical director.
The fact that the entire organization is now headed by a female CEO, Ricki Braswell, Dr. Brady says, showed its awareness of the need for female leaders early on —
to wit, back when it hired her. “They sat down and said, ‘We want to hire a new faculty member, and wouldn’t it be great if it was a woman because of the changing demographics in dental education?’ ”
Of course, it didn’t hurt that Dr. Brady had superior clinical expertise, an outgoing personality and presented as a committed “dental geek.” She jokes that over a glass of wine, if asked what she likes to do in her spare time, she’d answer, “talk dentistry.”
Yet she’s also candid about the fact that there were likely many equally qualified male candidates for the job she got. The difference-maker for Pankey was that Dr. Brady was a qualified female dentist. The difference-maker for Dr. Brady, in turn, was that the Pankey Institute was willing to teach her how to acquire a vaguely defined but critical attribute: leadership.
“Businesses need to reach out and give women the opportunity to learn the skills it takes to be a leader,” says Dr. Brady, who learned how to be an educator on the job at Pankey. “If we want [women in leadership roles] to happen faster, we have to reach out to younger women and say, ‘I am willing to help you learn how to do this,’ versus allowing it to happen however it will happen. If we want it to happen faster, we need to be more active about it.”
JULIE RADZYMINSKI, the head of business innovation and of The Lucy Hobbs Project for Benco Dental, spent nearly 20 years in the corporate world working for Procter & Gamble. Although she jokes that mulling over the progress of women leading businesses is usually lower on her daily list of priorities than considering how to do her job in the here and now, it’s clear that there just aren’t that many women at the top of dentistry’s numerous sectors.
“There’s a lot of gap right now,” Radzyminksi says. “A lot of dentists who have worked for 30-plus years are taking on roles like the presidency of local chapters and associations. And then there’s a huge gap of 20 years where there’s no one on the bench.”
Most efforts at promoting leadership to women so far have focused on continuing education and networking as methods to help women feel prepared to pursue paths to leadership, Radzyminski observes. But to keep the ranks of young women in independent practices flush — at a time when many corporate-dental groups and dental-products companies are stepping up their recruitment efforts to compensate for past indifference — they need to master the practical skills that go along with running a business.
The Lucy Hobbs Project, in conjunction with the ADA and other associations, is therefore in the process of creating a curriculum of business and leadership classes to be taught by an assortment of dentists and leaders through local Lucy Hobbs chapters nationwide.
The program is still in its early stages, but eventually it will entail multi-session classes in which attendees learn essential financial acumen, leadership, networking and mentoring. The hope is to provide the practical lessons women are not getting in dental school, and connect them with leaders who can guide them to their own path to senior positions.
One group with which Radzyminski thinks such classes could make a noticeable impact is young women who are considering joining a corporate practice, perhaps because they’re turned off by the challenges of launching their own practice at a time when they’re also deeply enmeshed in figuring out their personal life. “We need to reach them before they make a decision to go into corporate dentistry,” she says, “and give them the skill sets and mentors to know they can own and run their own practice.”
Learning the essentials necessary to run a successful business — and being introduced to, and developing relationships with, women who have been a part of (or run) successful businesses — is, Radzyminski hopes, the right combination to empower interested young female dentists to aspire to prominent roles, and possess the means to get there.
“It’s not a case of not enough numbers,” she says. “There are plenty of women going into dentistry. It’s a case of not enough leaders and mentors in the system to give women the skill sets to drive toward positions of leadership.”
ELIZABETH DILTS is a frequent contributor to Incisal Edge. Elsewhere in this issue (page 39), she profiles this year’s six winners of the Lucy Hobbs Awards.
reaching the brass ring
A FOUR-PACK of timely leadership advice, from women who have been there.
DR. BETSY BAKEMAN, on the tips she received when she took over as chairman of the AACD’s accreditation committee:
“My immediate predecessor, Brad Olson, said we all bring our own gifts to the task at hand. He suggested I make a list of 10 things I want to accomplish while serving. It’s so easy to be just a placeholder if you don’t set goals. So I wrote down mine, and I was quite proud of all I was able to spearhead just by having that list.”
DR. LEE ANN BRADY, on her husband agreeing to leave his job and move with her and their three small children when
she was offered a job at the Pankey Institute:
“One part is thinking it through and openly discussing whose dreams get to be in the front seat right now. Also part of it, I think, is that a lot of women are afraid to ask for that — to say to themselves and their partners, ‘This is really important to me.’ ”
LINDA MILES, a practice-management coach in Gig Harbor, Washington:
“In my experience, 20 percent of all dentists, men and women, are the movers and shakers. Sixty percent are bobbers — they’re not going to attend every meeting and will never set the world on fire, but they have life balance. And 20 percent, frankly, are in Hurt City as far as being one or two months away from not being able to pay their bills.”
DR. CAROL GOMEZ SUMMERHAYS, president of the American Dental Association:
“Follow your passion for volunteering. Women — and, really, all dentists — should commit to lifelong learning in leadership.”