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Balancing priorities as a woman in dentistry

Women play a huge role in the developmen­­t of dentistry, however, there is still work to do on gender equality. Laura Cross shares her experiences throughout her career.

Laura Cross
Laura Cross BDA Board member, PEC Officer, Chair of Education, Ethics and the Dental Team Working Group and former NHS Consultant and Honorary Clinical Associate Professor in Restorative Dentistry

What has your career journey been like?

I have had a very rewarding and successful hospital dentistry career journey. On graduating from the University of Edinburgh in 1990, it never occurred to me that my gender would have any relevance to me achieving my career goals. By continuing to work hard and make the most of career-developing- opportunities (timely postgrad exam success, an international research award for my PhD work and peer-reviewed publications), I was unphased by the predominantly male interview panels I faced at each hospital dentistry career stage, from House Officer to Consultant.

On reflection, I have no way of knowing if I had to work harder than my male colleagues to achieve my career goals but I am aware that any career hurdles I overcame as a “woman” became much more of an obstacle when I became a “woman with children” and there is no doubt that some career opportunities did pass me by when I started the balancing act of a career with family life. People in powerful positions move on and mindsets change, so things might be different now.

Any career hurdles I overcame as a “woman” became much more of an obstacle when I became a “woman with children”.

What challenges have you have faced?

I faced a challenge early in my career when I was recently married and was asked about my career plans in 1991 at an interview for a Senior House Officer position. I mentioned my interest in pursuing an academic career long term and was told by one of the all-male panellists that “there was only one female professor in dentistry, and she’s not married”. A year later, I was working in the same department as that pioneering female professor and decades on we share the honour of both having been President of the West of Scotland Branch of the BDA.

What are the challenges specifically facing women in dentistry?

The Equality Act of 2010 came in several years after I took up my consultant post and so there were battles around maternity leave and returning to work as a specialist trainee. In those days, time spent in training was the priority for educational supervisors who had little concern for a trainee trying to fit training with childcare responsibilities and this took a bit of negotiating. I am very fortunate to have a very supportive husband who helped make it all possible. It is also important to say at this point that I have worked with many more men who were supportive of me as their female colleague and only a few men who were not at all supportive. I am very grateful to my supportive colleagues, male and female.

Achieving a fair and inclusive workplace is the responsibility of all employees.

Women also have an important part to play in gender equality. It is not uncommon to come across a female colleague who is quite happy “being the only woman in the room” and resents female interference in that status quo. Achieving a fair and inclusive workplace is the responsibility of all employees.

How have we supported you during challenges in your career?

I have sought and received valuable support from BDA and BMA advisors throughout my career. No matter which area of dentistry you work in, having a sound knowledge and understanding of your contract is essential when challenges arise. In my experience many colleagues working in human resources and as medical managers can be lacking in their knowledge of the terms and conditions of employees for whom they have managerial responsibility.

Consultant job planning was introduced at the same time as I took up my consultant post and I would encourage dental consultants to become familiar with all aspects of the consultant job planning process. Becoming involved in BDA and BMA Committees is a good way to see how contracts are negotiated and employees are supported in fulfilling those contracts.

How is your experience as a female chair?

I had extensive experience of being both a committee member and a Chair of numerous local and national committees before I chaired BDA committees. This experience has stood me in good stead. 

The great thing about chairing BDA committees is the excellent support provided by BDA staff.

The great thing about chairing BDA committees is the excellent support provided by BDA staff and the fact that committee Chairs can draw on a wide diversity of staff and dental expertise. My advice to aspiring Chairs is to observe others in the role and get a feel for what constitutes a well-chaired meeting. In my experience, it takes a lot of behind-the-scenes preparation and good communication with the committee secretariat. Timing of meetings is key, and it is important not to overrun too far beyond the planned finish time when the committee is made up of very busy dentists and BDA staff who have lots of other things to do!

How can we encourage more women to take leadership roles?

The BDA Future Leaders’ Programme (FLP) is a brilliant initiative to encourage male and female dental students to take leadership roles at some stage in their dental career. The FLP provides BDSA representatives a chance to attend BDA committees they wouldn’t usually have access to, observing BDA Chairs and committee work in action. Many dental schools now have more female than male students and this cohort will be the Chairs of the future, so it is important that women continue to be encouraged and supported to step into leadership roles in dentistry.