I was proud to support International Women’s Day on 8 March, and celebrate the amazing contributions women have made to dentistry, as well as reflect on how some great female role models have helped me in my career.
My story of “why I did dentistry” is a product of my generation. My strength at school was mathematics, and I wanted to become an actuary, but in those days women were excluded from this profession.
Whilst at my orthodontist one day, I expressed my annoyance at this fact. When I was done, he quietly asked me, “why don’t you consider dentistry?" It was like switching on a light bulb.
He very kindly showed me around the dental school, and I knew immediately it was what I wanted to do. I have always loved my career in dentistry and the many roads it has taken me down, but when I think about that moment, it never ceases to remind of me the randomness of you future career path!
I qualified in 1979 from Queen’s University, Belfast. Unusually for that time, we had an equal number of men and women in the year.
All of the 14 women who were in my year have gone on to have fulfilling and productive careers in general practice, community dental and hospital services and academia, working across the UK.
We still meet regularly and those friendships and professional bonds we forged so long ago, and which have stood by us over 40 years of dental practice, remain as strong as ever. Being the youngest in the group, I was almost the last to retire from clinical practice at the end of 2016.
Today, we are lucky to have some shining examples of strong leadership and decision-making in dentistry. At present three of the four CDOs are female, and females are well represented on professional bodies including the BDA. However the number of females on committees still does not reflect the proportion of registered female dentists, and we need to encourage more women to consider standing to ensure the profession is well represented.
When you look back on your career, and I am sure this is the same for both men and women, it is the relationships that guide and support you.
For me it started in the first week of dental school with introduction to the British Dental Student Association. We all participated in the events and trips, reveling in the “dental profession” that we were suddenly part of, and giving me my first taste of BDA committee work and the importance of representing your colleagues.
Holding your own in an often male dominated environment was part of that important learning.
Rising through the ranks of the training grades, including a year in general practice was not always easy, and my self-confidence was a product of my youthful enthusiasm, rather than knowledge and experience.
However it was my teachers in particular who quietly supported me. Today we would call them mentors, but those days it was just what they did.
Taking on the role of a consultant orthodontist in the Altnagelvin Area Hospital and developing that service over 26 years was a privilege and trying to leave it better than I found it, my goal.
It was not all about forging a role for yourself within a large and busy trust, but also supporting the staff that look to you for leadership, and trying to give back some of the support that has been shown to me.
Seeking out mentors throughout my career has been important, to see me though the difficult days which inevitably happen.
How the BDA has helped me develop my skills
The BDA was also always there, providing both CPD and perhaps more importantly, a time to reflect with friends and colleagues.
My year as Northern Ireland Branch President in 1999 (only the second woman to hold this award), was certainly a highlight.
Women working in general dentistry and orthodontics was not unusual in the UK and I had brilliant role models, such as Fiona Simpson, Dame Margaret Seward and Alison Lockyer to name but a few, to aspire to.
Women in Dentistry as a campaigning movement was established in the early 1980s, and I was privileged to then be elected Chair of the Northern Ireland Branch for two years. What I gained from my time in elected roles included self-confidence and the ability to stand up for what I thought was right, and to persuade others.
Now towards the end of my career, my latest role as Chair of the BDA Northern Ireland Council, I find it continues to challenge me professionally and intellectually, so I am still learning and still listening!
I’m also keen to hear about the experiences of young dentists today, what challenges do you feel you are facing, or what do you most love about your career in dentistry, please get in touch and let us know.
Chair BDA Northern Ireland Council
Women in dentistry – tell us what you think
Read our profiles of some inspiring women in dentistry here.
We are keen to hear your comments on the issue of gender parity in dentistry, or to find out which female dentists have helped inspire your career, please get in touch and let us know.