It was a toss-up between studying medicine or dentistry, but Sabrina Manickam and Susan Wise decided that work as a dentist would give them more freedom and flexible hours.
They are among a growing number of women who have taken to the profession in recent decades.
The latest figures for June show that women make up slightly more than half of all dental practitioners in Australia for the first time. Women now represent 50.2 per cent of dental practitioners, including dentists and other dental therapists.
Dr Manickam, who is the Australian Dental Association NSW president, based in Orange, has been a dentist for 25 years since having a long conversation with her father about the hours involved in medicine. He warned her she would need to do an internship and work as a registrar.
“I work 8.30am to 5pm, whereas if you are in a hospital situation as a medico, you may not have that luxury,” she said. “Quite often you have to work the night shift.
Dentistry is very procedural. Patients walk in, get treated and walk out.
“Dentistry is a very flexible career for women,” Dr Manickam said. “If you work in private practice, you can work part-time and still earn a reasonably good wage.
“You can own a business as well as be a health-care professional.”
When deciding to study dentistry, Dr Manickam also wanted a job that involved using her hands after helping her father, an engineer, in his workshop.
“Dentistry is a great combination between health sciences and being able to help people but at the same time using your hands to fix and create things,” she said.
Dr Susan Wise, a specialist periodontist in McKinnon, decided to become a dentist when she found out her Year 7 maths teacher had two daughters who were dentists.
“I sat in the class and thought ‘wow, I’m going to be a dentist’. It was the first time I realised a girl could be a dentist,” Dr Wise said.
“I had never seen a female dentist before.”
When later deciding between dentistry, medicine and physiotherapy, her late father, a GP, talked her out of doing medicine.
“He said ‘do dentistry, it’s a great job. You work with your hands, you talk to people, you’ve got good hours but you don’t do an intern year’,” Dr Wise said.
“My uncle overseas is a dentist and I watched him work and I thought, I’d like to do that.
“I’m someone who likes their eight hours’ sleep every night.”
Dr Wise, who is the Australian Dental Association Victoria president, was one of 17 women and 34 men in her University of Melbourne graduating class in 1994. Her dentistry school was one of five. Now there are nine.
Of 732 current student members of the Australian Dental Association Victorian branch 410 are female and 322 male, including students at the University of Melbourne, La Trobe University and overseas-trained dentists who have not passed their registration exams to practise. Dr Wise said of 127 Australian Dental Council student members, 90 were women and 37 men.
“The number of female students has increased markedly since I graduated,” she said.
“There is an oversupply of dentists now. The market is flooded.”
Dr Juliette Scott, a specialist paediatric dentist based in Crows Nest, said dentistry had changed in recent decades.
“It is far gentler now and with the rates of decay dropping, general dentistry is not just concerned with the drill-and-fill mentality of the past, or just extracting teeth,” she said.
“The technology in dentistry now is amazing. Perhaps this has made it a more attractive profession for women – the ability to combine art and science and treating the whole person. Technology has also made it easier to enhance work/life balance.”
Dr Scott’s mother was a dentist and one of about six women in a dentistry class of more than 100 in the 1970s. She took time off work to have five children.
Her father was a lawyer, which meant he spent long hours at work.
“I didn’t want that for my family,” she said.
Dr Scott’s husband is a dentist.
“For male or female, dentistry can offer a great work/life balance,” she said.
Dr Melanie Patney, a general dentist in West Pymble, said women, like men, did dentistry because they enjoyed it and “it’s a great career”. She now enjoys the flexibility it offers her as the mother of an 18-month-old child.
“I love working in a profession where you help improve someone’s health. Every day has new challenges and requires problem solving, emotional sensitivity and manual dexterity.”
1901 – 20 women practising as dentists (first register of the Dental Board of NSW)
1901 – two women in a class of 17 students when Australia’s first dental school opened at the University of Sydney
1966 – 152 female dentists (6 per cent of the 2400 people listing their occupation as dentists in the 1966 Census)
1979 – 741 female dentists (9.8 per cent of registered dentists nationally)
1992 – 1,274 female dentists (16 per cent of 7,670 dentists)
2000 – 2009 – the number of female dentists increased by 89.5 per cent. In 2009, 33 per cent of dentists were female (3,869 of 11,882).
2014 – 39 per cent of employed dentists were women
Source: Australian Dental Association NSW