Women now strong force at Dental School
As old ideas about a woman’s role in society continue to change, more women are choosing to enter the dental profession. But for many years, the ratio of male to female dental practitioners was clearly unbalanced. Only 25 years ago, in 1979, less than 2 percent of working dentists in the United States were women, according to the American Association of Women Dentists.
Various dental schools and associations throughout the country responded to this disparity, and throughout the ’80s and ’90s, there was a push to encourage more women to apply to dental school. By the year 2000, women represented approximately 40 percent of U.S. dental students. But the time when days were difficult for women interested in health sciences professions is still fresh in the memories of many.
When Sarah A. Gray, associate dean for academic affairs at the School of Dentistry, started out as a dental student at Temple in 1978, only 13 percent of the students enrolled in the dental program were female. Since then, Gray has worn many hats, including associate dean for admissions and student affairs, associate dean for clinical affairs and acting chairwoman for the department of removable prosthodontics, a department where in 1983 she became the first female faculty member.
While studying at Penn State, Gray met and married Glenn Gray, who was two years her senior and heading to Temple’s Dental School.
Gray would visit her new husband at the dental school often, and after befriending many of the dental students and learning more about the profession, she decided to begin her own dental education at her first and only choice, Temple.
“When I applied to Temple, I requested an interview at the school. The faculty interviewer was very traditional and could not understand why I would want to go to dental school when my husband was already in dental school and my financial future was secure,” Gray said. She brushed aside his comments and began the program that year.
Gray recalls that years later at an Omicron Kappa Upsilon dental honor fraternity function, she ran into the faculty member from her interview. He “politely cut in” on a dance between Gray and her husband. Gray was surprised when he apologized for discouraging her all those years ago. “I never thought that he would even remember talking to me,” she said.
After her graduation from Temple in 1982, Gray decided to continue her education and entered the postdoctoral dental program in prosthodontics at Temple. One year into the program, Gray was offered a faculty teaching position in the removable prosthodontics department, which she accepted.
Since Gray’s initial run-in with the “discouraging” faculty member, many things at Temple’s dental school have changed. Women now make up 29 percent of Temple’s newest class of dental students and Gray, Lisa P. Deem, associate dean for admissions and student affairs, and Bonnie Graham, senior administrator, serve in top positions at the school.
When Gray looks back on her experiences as a student she thinks of them as “rites of passage.”
“In those days, we didn’t turn to our professors to talk out our problems. We didn’t have a voice,” said Gray, who hopes that today’s dental students take advantage of the access that they have to their teachers and to school administrators. She wants to encourage students to nurture and develop these newfound relationships and to appreciate their professors because such access was not always the case.
Gray is currently a fellow of the American College of Dentists, a member of several dental organizations and a faculty advisor for the American Association of Women Dentists. She was recently named a fellow by the American Dental Education Association’s Leadership Institute. This program brings 21 dental and allied dental education administrators and faculty together each year to further their professional development goals.
- By Tory Harris