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American Dental Association executive director calls on students to close the gender gap in health care

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Kathleen O’Loughlin, D.M.D., will visit VCU’s MCV Campus to speak about gender equality on Sept. 17. (Courtesy photo)

Gender inequality continues to impact how women health care providers are treated in the workplace and at home, and how female patients are treated.

Nationally, half of all medical and dental school graduates are women but on average, female dentists still earn 36 percent less than their male counterparts, according to a study in the Journal of the American Dental Association in 2017.

Female patients are also more likely to have complaints of chronic pain dismissed by health care providers, a 2011 Institute of Medicine report said.

Kathy O’Loughlin, D.M.D., executive director of the American Dental Association, will speak to students in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry on Sept. 17 about how to combat sexism in the medical profession. O’Loughlin was invited by the school’s chapter of the American Association of Women Dentists.

Ahead of the visit, O’Loughlin spoke to VCU News about gender inequality in health care and other workplaces.

What can women do to ensure they receive equal treatment in the workplace?

This is 2018 and equal treatment in the workplace should be expected and demanded.

The trouble is, even though half of the students in dental and medical schools today are female, the culture of men in leadership is deeply embedded and our society has been slow to play catch up. Female physicians and dentists earn less than their male counterparts, and instances of sexism sneak up in surprising ways.

I graduated with my doctorate as valedictorian and president of my dental school class with no job offers, despite the previous male valedictorian having an abundance of offers. When I was ready to open a private practice, I was denied a bank loan unless my husband co-signed. More than once, at professional meetings, I was given drink orders or coats to check, and I was always assigned to take notes and check on the snacks.

My experience wasn’t unique, and I still hear similar stories from female dentists and dental students today. While the number of women getting a higher education has changed, the culture to support that achievement hasn’t come along for the ride. Women are still expected to manage the home front and raise perfect children.

We can’t sit back and wait for attitudes to change. The most important step each of us can take is to be self-aware of our normal, natural bias and be intentional about being inclusive. We have to stop engaging in this behavior ourselves, and also call it out when we witness it.

It’s not just about gender, either. Business needs to embrace that different is good. Research suggests that increasing diversity enhances team performance in measurable ways. Diverse perspectives make organizations stronger, and companies should strive to promote diversity and inclusion at all levels, by supporting the needs of its diverse workforce.

I always tell young dentists to negotiate and ask for what you are worth. Find a mentor or sponsor — and become a mentor or sponsor. That goes for women as well as men.

What can health care providers do to advocate for their female patients?

Years ago, I left my dental practice with really severe heartburn, and I blamed the lunch I ate. The pain persisted, so the next day I dropped in to see my primary care physician across the hall and he suggested an antacid. The pain persisted for a couple more days and finally I went to see him again and he did an electrocardiogram (EKG). The issue was far more serious than heartburn, and instead of going home that night, I stayed in the hospital and had my coronary artery unclogged.

This is not uncommon. Because women present symptoms differently than men, especially for heart disease, evidence shows that men and women are sometimes diagnosed and treated in a way that seems influenced by gender bias, whereby a male’s symptoms are assumed to be organic, and a female’s psychological.

Medical and dental education is increasing the importance of gender sensitivity when diagnosing and treating patients so that disparities become less of a risk to the patient. This work should continue. We need to acknowledge that our personal biases can sneak up when we least expect them, and that goes for doctors, too. As a result, doctors need to be aware of their own biases, and then be intentional about compensating for them.

How can women cultivate partnerships with significant others that give them the space and support to meet career and personal goals?

This is as much about having a supportive significant other as it is about changing the workplace culture to allow for flexible work arrangements that enable child bearing and child raising. The fact is that both parents need the flexibility to mitigate the stress of caring for others while in a demanding career so that family obligations don’t disproportionately fall on one partner.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for families. I hired help to clean, cook and provide childcare as I needed it. Workplaces are starting to make affordable daycare and eldercare available, along with a supportive environment at the office — which we aim to do for employees at the ADA.

Find a life partner who will celebrate your success, listen to you, and share the home responsibilities. Or, hire help. Insist that your workplace allow for some flexibility at home. If you meet resistance, it might be time to polish your resume.

What can women do to cultivate their leadership skills?

Let’s first acknowledge that women of talent perform equally as well as men of talent in leadership roles — and they deserve respect. Women and men exercise their roles in fundamentally different ways, each successfully.

What many women in medical professions have found is that there’s a culture of gendered politics in the organizations where they work. You’ve heard the saying, “An assertive male leader is considered an asset, while an assertive female leader is a liability.” And a woman who complains about lack of parity is a “whiner.” There are still leaders in dentistry and medicine who call seasoned and well-accomplished women “young ladies” or “girls.”

Culture does not change itself. We need to drive our behavior to the culture we want: a culture of inclusion. Here’s what we can do: Women need sponsors to pull them through, endorse them, and help them be true to themselves while they begin to bend existing rules of gendered politics — rules that they, by the way, had no role in creating.

That said, we can all benefit from developing leadership skills. Leadership skills are learned, not inherited. Advanced degrees such as a master’s in business or public health, or a health care management program, can pay huge dividends. The ADA offers the Institute for Diversity in Leadership, a free yearlong program open to dentists who have been underrepresented in leadership roles, including women. Programs like this exist all over the country and are worthy of consideration.