Closing the Gender Gap in Academic Dentistry

Dr. Richard ValachovicIn this month’s letter, ADEA President and CEO Dr. Rick Valachovic shares the news from Barcelona, where dental educators from around the globe gathered to foster alliances and deliver leadership strategies that women can use to advance their careers and improve oral health.

Despite the presence of many familiar faces, September’s gathering in Barcelona was not your typical dental meeting. The 5th ADEA International Women’s Leadership Conference brought over 120 attendees from 17 countries to one of Spain’s most iconic cities to share their experiences and consider strategies for advancing women’s leadership in global academic dentistry.

Thirty-one ADEA member schools were represented by students, faculty, deans and other emerging and established leaders from academia, government and industry who made the trip from all four hemispheres to connect with colleagues. Men also took part, but the majority presence of women created an atmosphere in which most participants felt comfortable speaking about their concerns and seeking the support and mentorship they sometimes lack at home.

In an era when women are clearly visible in education, research and practice—not just in North America but on the world stage—some may wonder about the rationale behind such a meeting. After all, women will soon achieve parity in dental school enrollment in the United States, and the percentage of women serving as dental school deans in North America is higher than the percentage of women serving as medical school deans. Within ADEA’s leadership, half of our board members are women, including our Chair of the Board, Lily Garcia, D.D.S., M.S., FACP, so by many measures there has been tremendous progress.

Yet a closer look at the data—domestic and worldwide—reveals significant gender gaps within academic dentistry. Helen Whelton, B.D.S., Ph.D., M.S., F.D.S., Dean of the School of Dentistry at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, and President of the International Association for Dental Research, was among several presenters who shared data on women’s status in dental education and in academia generally. Among the most notable facts:

  • Women have achieved global parity at the entry level to higher education, but remain underrepresented in many places around the globe and in many academic disciplines.
  • Women are approaching 50% of U.S. dental and medical school enrollments.
  • In the United States, women hold about 35% of full-time and 30% of part-time faculty positions in dental education.
  • Within dental education, U.S. women earn about 82% of their male counterparts’ salaries. In the U.K., that figure is 88% when comparing the salaries of new graduates.
  • Women receive fewer research funding dollars, and they are less likely to be journal editors, principal investigators or members of research boards.

One of the most illuminating data displays at the conference was a slide illustrating how the presence of women and men changes as the level of education increases. Using European Union data, Helen pointed out that the lines on the graph are essentially parallel as women and men enter higher education and progress through the master’s degree, but the lines start to cross at the Ph.D. level. By the time they reach the level of professor, the lines have widely diverged, reflecting men’s 82% and women’s 18% shares of the professoriate.

Helen called this phenomenon the “academic career forceps” because the shape of the graph closely resembles the shape of this instrument. Whatever metaphor we use, closing the gender gap in academic dentistry won’t be easy. It will take a combination of external and internal pressures, and these will have to work in concert to allow the full potential of women’s leadership to be realized. Women can develop new attitudes and skills to propel their own careers, but changes in institutional policy and other external factors will also be needed to drive women’s advancement. And as this international gathering made abundantly clear, the levers for change will vary depending on context.

For example, in Spain, women now make up 45% of the dental profession, but private universities are graduating a plethora of professionals whom the market cannot absorb. In Nigeria, there are more women than men among the students and faculty in its dental schools. Tanzania, by contrast, has only one dental school, and women typically account for about 17% of higher education enrollment. India has seen gender equity increase dramatically for its educated class, yet cultural biases persist, and in the words of one panelist, educated women are on “a tightrope walk” trying to balance their masculine and feminine sides. In Saudi Arabia, funding for professional education is abundant, but segregated campuses and laws based on gender that restrict women’s mobility pose their own unique challenges when it comes to preparing women for dental practice.

The conference also revealed many commonalities among the experiences of the attendees. Several countries have documented that women’s working patterns differ from those of their male counterparts in dentistry. Women are more likely to work part-time, to take a career break and to retire before age 60, and women in Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom cited child care as the reason for these differences. Comments by Suhasini Nagda, B.D.S., M.D.S., FDS RCPF, Dean of Nair Hospital Dental College in Mumbai, India, suggest that this phenomenon exists in other countries as well. She reported that 87% of Indian women dentists agreed that childrearing responsibilities should be shared, and shared not only by spouses but by grandparents and the community as well.

Salary inequity was also on the minds of many participants. A lively Q&A on this topic followed one session, with panelists and attendees trying to tease out why salary differentials persist even in institutions with salary scales. Several speakers mentioned ADEA’s preconference webinar, Leaning In: A New Era of Women Leaders, which drew on Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling book Lean In to explore strategies for career advancement. Others cited research from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showing that women can be reluctant negotiators, and that their lower salaries are reflected in less academic achievement in other areas. Another study, conducted in Australia, found that men are willing to “hopscotch” from institution to institution in order to further their careers, whereas women are not.

Women face similar problems when it comes to research funding. American data on research funding also produce a forceps-shaped line graph, with women paralleling and even exceeding men as recipients of National Institutes of Health training dollars but dropping well below men when it comes to receiving research funding. Women apply less often, receive fewer research grants and publish fewer papers—key indicators for academic success.

These particular findings were conveyed by Kathryn (Kathy) Atchison, D.D.S., M.P.H., Vice Provost for New Collaborative Initiatives at the University of California, Los Angeles, and she suggested another way of looking at these data. It might be that current data collection, she posited, does not recognize the fact that “women still have other goals that are quite different from their male academic and dental colleagues.” Nevertheless, Kathy is ambitious when it comes to women’s leadership in dental education. In preparation for the meeting, she contacted her sister alums from the prestigious Hedwig van Ameringen Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine® Program for Women, better known as ELAM. (ADEA has partnered with ELAM to bring the benefits of this program to women in academic dentistry.) Their advice: “Recognize that there are many different opportunities for leadership. Don’t confine yourself to the dental school.”

Kathy urged conference attendees to consider aiming for positions in the university C-suite. She pointed out that while only 26.4% of U.S. college presidents are women today, almost all of them rose through the academic ranks. “So this is a possibility for everyone here,” she concluded.

For those who weren’t quite ready to make that leap, as well as for those who were, the conference offered concrete guidance for advancing any academic career. Advice included identifying mentors and sponsors, becoming active in professional associations and making strategic decisions about which academic service opportunities to pursue. The meeting ended with a skill-building workshop led by Judith Albino, Ph.D., President Emerita and Professor at the Colorado School of Public Health and AAL Senior Consultant. (Many of you know AAL as the organization with which ADEA has partnered to develop a variety of leadership development programs.) The session helped attendees recognize their strengths and gave them strategies for building on those strengths moving forward. I have no doubt everyone went home inspired by the experience of others and the connections they forged with colleagues from across the globe.

Of course, these events don’t happen without the support and hard work of many individuals. We have three ADEA corporate partners—Colgate-Palmolive Co., DENTSPLY International, Inc. and The Procter & Gamble Company—to acknowledge and thank for their commitment to providing support and sponsorship of the conference. I also want to thank all who served on the conference planning and advisory committees for making this event such a huge success. The local Faculty of Dentistry at the Universitat de Barcelona, whose representatives organized a private meeting with the mayor’s health secretary and a tour of the ornate city hall, deserves a special acknowledgement.

Finally, I want to recognize our own Jeanne Sinkford, D.D.S., Ph.D., ADEA’s Senior Scholar in Residence. A trailblazer in dental education, Jeanne first proposed the idea of an international conference to support the development of women’s leadership back in 1995. It is wonderful to see her idea come to life. Gatherings such as this can be instrumental in bringing forth the next generation of emerging leaders and in supporting change and innovation in dental education globally. ADEA is proud to have assisted at the birth of a global conversation that is sure to continue in the years ahead.

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