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Representation of women in dentistry

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

Roz Mcmullan
Roz McMullan Chair Northern Ireland Council BDS FDS DIP ORTH RCSE FICD

How did your career in dentistry start? 

A visit to the orthodontist is what started my career in dentistry. Maths was my main subject and originally, I wanted to be an actuary. In the 1970s, the profession was closed to women, and I spoke to my orthodontist about my frustrations. He responded by asking me “why don't you become a dentist instead?” A tour of the dental school followed, and I went home and told my mother I wanted to be a dentist, and she knew me well enough not to argue too much!

The minute I walked into dental school; I knew it was the right thing for me. I felt comfortable, at home, and confident. Starting out as a student I had very little experience of life in all its colours. Meeting appreciative patients facing so many problems was a humbling experience. A lot of my first years in dentistry were about me growing up personally. Dentistry came naturally – all apart from dentures.

I decided to go to Edinburgh to work in General Practice. I worked in one area which was very middle class, and one that was facing more deprivation. This meant that despite it not being my favourite thing, I was treating a lot of patients needing full dentures. One day, a long-distance lorry driver came in for his denture appointment. I learnt that the reason he needed new dentures was he shouted out to his friend on the M6, and the dentures flew out of his mouth and onto the road!

You may not enjoy a particular part of dentistry, but patients may appreciate it more than you know.

Once fitted with new dentures, he was delighted and told his lorry driver friends about this great dentist who made dentures. This meant that not only did I block the main street most weeks with long distance drivers, but I was also inundated with patients for denture treatment, the one thing I hadn’t initially taken to. It taught me that you may not enjoy a particular part of dentistry, but patients may appreciate it more than you know. That year was a learning experience and made it clear to me that a career in orthodontics was the right choice.

What challenges have you have faced in dentistry and on committees? 

Women have different pressures and in the main, still tend to bear the load with childcare and family commitments, but the challenges of engaging a committee are the same whether male or female. In practice, I suspect that women tend to treat more families and anxious patients which impacts earning power. I know the BDA are doing research to understand gender inequality in earnings and I look forward to seeing the outcome of this work.

It is important to check in on staff during periods of absence including maternity and paternity leave, ensure staff are kept well informed, show an interest, and help to reduce the natural anxiety of a return to work. There can be unfair perceptions about any time away from practise, but for many it is a challenging time of adjustment. It is important to welcome staff back after leave.

When it comes to committees, we all make mistakes while learning. I was lucky in that when I faced challenges, I got a lot of encouragement, time to reflect, and forgiveness. I learnt that sometimes a circulated report or letter and watching people’s reactions will get a better response, and sometimes direct discussion is the best way. The main challenge with committees is learning those techniques.

There can be unfair perceptions about any time away from practise.

How have we supported you during challenges in your career? 

There is a lot of intense financial pressure in the current climate and membership may seem like an extra expense, but you don’t know what you will need the BDA for until you do. I often hear from dentists facing contract issues, wanting to join the BDA and needing support.

It's the things that are behind the membership that are so important throughout your career. Personally, I have benefited from support with my pension, and there have been benefits to my negotiating skills over the years. The camaraderie is so valuable - getting to know peers, the joy of representing people, and feeling of giving something back.

How is your experience as a female Chair? 

I was secretary of the student committee, so that started my life on committees. You learn very quickly as young person, and I soon became Chair of the Junior Staff Committee which meant I started sitting in meetings as the junior staff representative, which was very nerve wracking. I tried to learn from these experiences. I work hard to ensure that people's voices are heard, but with this I learnt that although the louder voices are important, the quiet voices are equally as key.

How can we encourage more women to take leadership roles? 

There is a lot of talk about being kind, but I've started to use ‘be compassionate’, because being compassionate means acting on what you see. I think we must do better to encourage more females to take leadership roles. Mentorship is a part of this. The best person for a leadership role should be meritorious, but we should also work to ensure everyone is represented. Standing up as a woman in leadership encourages more women to come forward, which is something we should be proud of. If we represent everybody, then everybody will feel included.


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A dentist in blue scrubs sits in front of a computer