Gender equality in dentistry - my experience

News Published: 
25 February 2021

Susan Nelson, MGFGDP(UK) is Vice Dean of FGDP(UK) and the Northern Ireland representative on the Faculty Board. Lead dentist in a general practice in County Down, Susan was a member of the panel on the recent Gender Equality in Dentistry webinar, hosted by FGDP, CGDent and ProDental. In this blog, she shares her experiences of gender equality within the profession.


In dentistry today, there are more female practitioners than male, and an even greater number of female graduates entering the profession than male graduates. My decision to train in dentistry, rather than general medicine, was partly influenced by babysitting for a female dentist who had three small children and was able to work in a busy general practice. Like me, women may be attracted to the profession because it can offer flexibility and many varied career opportunities. Having reflected on my own career, it is clear that the profession has moved forward in many respects, but there is still more to be done to ensure female dental professionals are given equal opportunities in the profession. 

I have had what I consider to be a fantastic career in dentistry to date and I continue to add value to my job satisfaction as I progress in my career by taking opportunities outside of clinical dentistry. Having completed Vocational Training in Scotland, I returned to Northern Ireland, to Holywood, County Down, and a two-dentist practice. I was brought in as an expense-sharing partner when pregnant with baby number one, and bought my share when pregnant with baby number three. My practice partner and I had a long and happy working relationship and continue to be good friends today. Without his influence I would not have become involved in the Faculty or Dental Foundation Training, which have both helped shape my career and within which I now have a number of leadership roles. 

Being a dental practitioner is a mentally and physically challenging role, as my aching joints will bear witness to. It can be stressful and emotionally draining and without the correct support both genders struggle. I had all my children before I was 30 and could not have run the practice without the background support of my husband and both sides of the family, in addition to a very reliable childminder. 

As well as working very hard to achieve my goals, I’ve been fortunate to have had support from both colleagues and family, allowing me to focus on developing my career as well as raise my family the way I wanted. Not all women have such a great support network, yet the success of a female practitioner shouldn’t be dependent on their individual personal circumstances. The profession needs to support dentists to balance work, education and training, childcare and homelife. Equal opportunities for both sexes should be the aim, as with a level playing field we will get the best person for each job, and the best out of each person. 

We need to support and encourage our female colleagues so that they can achieve their full potential in both clinical dentistry and with leadership positions.  I was 31 when I went to my first examiner training for the MFGDP, and I was the only woman, and one of the few people under the age of 50. I held my own and proved my worth, finally stepping down from MJDF examining having completed my maximum tenure and joined the FGDP Board as Northern Ireland Representative and now as Vice Dean. By the time I had left examining, it had become populated with many female clinicians making valid and valuable contributions to the postgraduate examinations. 

A huge data gap was exposed by Caroline Criado Perez in her book Invisible Women and it shows us that in a world designed for men and by men, we are now faced with a multifaceted gender gap that has permeated all of society, resulting in female invisibility across all levels to the extent that we may not even see it ourselves. Women face obstacles in every workplace with gender pay gaps and a lack of female board members in many professional spheres.  Anne Boden who heads up Starling, a challenger bank, said “women have to work harder and achieve more to get the job compared to a man.” 

This fact was reflected in the recent webinar on gender equality in dentistry, hosted by FGDP, CGDent and ProDental as part of a joint commitment to promote diversity and inclusivity in the profession. Webinar participants discussed many examples of situations where female colleagues are not shown the same respect as their male counterparts, and where any changes in the workplace to support female colleagues are seen to be a reflection of a weakness. 

One of the solutions to gender equality is to enable and encourage women to take up leadership positions and act as role models to those entering the profession.  We need to actively promote equal opportunities across gender, age, race and culture to take dentistry forward in a modern society. For some, this will mean having women-only events and groups that create a safe space for female dental professionals to voice an opinion or be involved in public discussion without inhibition, or concern of possible intimidation by criticism from some male colleagues. Hopefully after building confidence in that environment they will feel able to contribute in a mixed environment without fear and they will have a stronger voice in our profession. 


If you are an FGDP(UK) member, why not get involved with your local division where there are opportunities to take on leadership roles at a local or national level, including standing for election onto the National Faculty Board.

A free recording of the Gender Equality in Dentistry webinar is available here.


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