‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it’ – Claire Stevens speaks out about sexism in dentistry

Claire Stevens speaks out on sexismClaire Stevens is a consultant in paediatric dentistry and a founding member of the Diversity in Dentistry Action Group. She talks us through her own experiences, the current challenges faced by the profession and what she would like to see happen going forward.

Firstly, do you think sexism is a problem within the profession?

I do think it’s a challenge. When I was in dental school, things were different. Perhaps then, the sexism that I saw and experienced was more conscious and obvious. The nature of the sexism we see today is less overt but it’s there; we need to be addressing it in the profession.

Sexism must be called out. But it needs to be done in a calm and appropriate way. You may be having to re-educate somebody who has held a set of beliefs throughout their entire lifespan and actually I can imagine it could be quite unsettling to be challenged.

I don’t see this as a war or a ‘them versus us’. I see it as a process of opening up the discussion, providing the education and reinforcing it every time it happens.

Have you always spoken out when you’ve had uncomfortable experiences?

When I was younger, I didn’t always have the confidence to handle sexism. I think when you’re more junior in your career, you are more conscious that you’re relying on your superiors for a potential reference or feedback. That makes it very, very hard to speak out.

But I’m not in that position anymore. I see it as a responsibility for those of us who are leaders within the profession to be calling it out, and consistently. Personally, I feel a responsibility to make my younger colleagues’ working lives smoother and better than mine was at times.

I can understand why there is silence. It can often be a very difficult conversation to initiate. Unfortunately, on some closed groups on social media such as Facebook, sometimes the way we talk to each other is unacceptable. If a woman or a man calls out sexist actions then that should be listened to and supported.

But I have seen examples of people almost trying to close that down. I think that is almost worse, because it shows you just don’t have the professional courtesy to listen to colleagues. It’s divisive within the profession and I really think it has to stop.

Of course, last year we also saw a much needed upsurge in discussion surrounding Black Lives Matter within dentistry. Do you feel gender has sparked similar reactions?

I expected these conversations to be similar. But my experience is that this isn’t the case.

Last year I took part in a webinar which was based on BLM. The lived experiences that were shared and the discussions that followed were so eye opening. I went away and just thought about it for days. The discussion was constructive, positive and supportive. Unfortunately, we are not seeing this with the gender discussion and I don’t know why that is.

For me, diversity within dentistry and within the NHS is so, so important. Whether we’re talking about race, gender, sexuality or disability – whatever we’re talking about, the discussion has to be respectful. We all have to be open to the fact that we can do things better.

I speak from a position of white privilege so I can’t fully understand the perspective of a colleague who is going through training as a black woman. Her experience has been different to mine.

But the way I can understand it better is by educating myself, listening to those experiences and accepting that there are differences – and that I can be part of the solution. It’s saying: ‘I don’t know everything I need to know about this. I’m interested and curious and want to find out more so I can better support my colleagues.’ And I think this is also true for gender.

We need to make sure that the leaders within our profession are diverse. That’s why I’m part of the Balance the Boards movement, initiated in 2019 and the Diversity in Dentistry Action Group (DDAG). For me, it’s about putting that marker out there and making it known that you’re going to be an ally to anyone facing discrimination.

If we don’t have diverse leadership, we have a real risk of disengaging younger colleagues who feel they don’t fit. One of my students said to me: ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.’ I just think that’s so powerful.

So what do you think one of the biggest challenges is going forward?

It’s about getting people to listen. It’s about getting people to realise when they are in a position of privilege.

We are all going to come from different backgrounds. It’s just acknowledging this and taking the step to understand how you can be a better ally.

I think it’s really powerful when you’ve got somebody who has got nothing to gain from a situation personally, standing up and saying: ‘This is important and we need to look at it.’

I know some people may argue that they have never witnessed any sexism within the profession or take the discussion quite personally. What would you say to this?

I think it is only natural to be defensive – it’s an instinctive reaction. For those people benefiting from the status quo, it’s a threat to see it being challenged. It actually takes quite a lot of courage to initiate change.

There are some boards where there are only one or two women and the majority are white men of a certain age. That is a board which cannot, I believe, effectively represent its members or serve the population, however brilliant they are at leading.

Consciously or not, people tend to elect people who look and are like them. It’s that unconscious bias which favours the safe option. But this is a barrier to developing progressive organisations. I would like all of us to be ready to vote for the best people, those who might bring a new and diverse skillset.

In addition to a bigger voting turnout, I would like to see women continuing to put themselves forward for national board roles.

How else does this need to be tackled?

In terms of the diversity within dental nursing, we have the exact opposite. I have a really excellent dental nurse, he’s black and male and working within paediatric dentistry, which is very female dominated. All of his line managers are white and female so he’s facing a different kind of challenge.

If someone has gone through any kind of struggle, I expect them to want to make their colleagues’ experiences easier. But this is not always the case;  some women feel that because they had to fight their way to the top, other women should too. I don’t belong to that school of thought.

That said, I have seen some really amazing women lifting others. For example, I put a thread up on Twitter recently about women who had made a difference. The engagement was phenomenal. I had people replying about how their colleagues had made a positive impact. It was the most heart-warming thread because it was just about women supporting women.

As I was training, I was determined to make sure that I took forward the best aspects out of all of the consultants who had trained me. Now, influenced by those who believed in me, my philosophy is that if I can support others to be the best they can be, it’s going to be good for our team too. I don’t see that as a threat. I always say to a trainee: ‘I’m trying to train you to be better than me.’

Let’s progress dentistry and make it a better speciality for people to be in. That’s how we’re going to attract the best work force.

What would you say to people who are perhaps reluctant or nervous to speak out?

I can understand this reluctance because I’ve been there, especially when the concern is regarding somebody who is senior to you. It can be an extremely difficult conversation to have. I really think it depends on the personalities involved. I have had women come to me to share these experiences and just to talk it through.

Sometimes, this is enough to give them a plan of action. If you feel able to, then it’s really powerful to be able to say to someone who has suffered at the hands of a colleague: ‘Can I get you a coffee? Can we please sit down and have a chat?’

With all this in mind, how are you feeling about where the profession is heading?

I am cautiously positive. We are starting to raise awareness. These conversations help to outline the scale of the challenge and start to propose solutions. The reason I say cautiously positive is that over the last few weeks, there’s been a few incidences that have made me feel that we aren’t as far along as I hoped.

But actually, the positivity comes from the connection that I’ve made – particularly in the last year – with a really forward thinking group of individuals, women and men, who are really passionate about seeing change within the profession. We are working collaboratively to achieve that.

The Diversity in Dentistry Action Group is just phenomenal; people are pulling together their connections and experiences. As a result, we are coming up with an action plan that will span the profession.

It will give us a strategic overview of where we need to go with the diversity agenda. Some organisations have already started to do some brilliant work at what that might look like.

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