Sharon Kaur speaks out about sexism in dentistry and what the profession can collectively do to address it.
We are living in very divisive times. While social media may make it seem like people are no longer afraid to speak about issues such as racism, sexism and bigotry, without the coat of armour and cloak of anonymity the keyboard gives, many people still feel frightened to air their views for fear of conflict or retribution. Especially when it comes to their professional lives.
As a female business owner, woman of colour, and mother of a daughter, I am recently hyper-aware of the amount of exposure issues connected to inequality get in the press across the board.
The Black Lives Matter movement really awoke something within the public consciousness. And the murder of Sarah Everard by police officer Wayne Couzens brought not just the issue of misogyny to the forefront, but also sexism in broader terms.
It generated a lot of anger amongst women about their rights. As well as the sexism, sexual harassment and sexually inappropriate behaviour that many experience in daily life.
Many held vigils and protests. The phrase: ‘She was just walking home’ started trending across the internet and appearing on banners. Enough, women were saying, was enough.
The whole incident sparked widespread calls for the criminalisation of misogyny. The MET called in Whitehall trouble-shooter Louise Casey to wipe it out within its ranks; however, Prime Minister Boris Johnson ruled out making it a hate crime because it would ‘overload the police‘.
All of this has stimulated a lot of reflection for me personally. But how does it relate to dentistry?
While true misogyny is thankfully rare, it is the offshoots of it – sexism, inequality, sexual harassment – that the Everard case has most brought to light. Sadly, this does affect too many women in too many different professions.
In February 2021, an article was published in the British Dental Journal entitled: ‘Awokening‘.
In it, the author, Shaun Sellers, wrote: ‘There has been a lot of discussion regarding sexism in dentistry recently. This includes being brought up at a recent FGDP webinar on gender equality.
‘The reaction to this has been mixed with a section of the profession despairing over what they see as a “woke” agenda being forced upon them. Others, myself included, are relieved that dentistry is turning the social conscience we show to patients upon ourselves.’
It upsets me when I hear women’s concerns about sexism branded as a ‘woke agenda’. It downplays the seriousness of this issue and attempts to brush it under the carpet.
As Sellers goes on to say: ‘Just because you haven’t experienced sexism (or racism/similar forms of discrimination) doesn’t mean that it’s not an issue for many.
‘We should hear these issues raised, investigate, and, if necessary, act upon them.’
As a woman, mother, mentor, and educational supervisor to newly qualified dentists, I felt I had a responsibility to speak out and open up the discussion.
A collective responsibility
When many people hear the words misogyny, sexism, discrimination, they respond emotionally to them. This is perfectly natural. No one likes to think of themselves as biased. Although we all are on an unconscious level.
So it’s not surprising that the first response to these topics is a defensive one. One that comes from a place of showing: ‘I’m not guilty of it’. But this doesn’t help move the conversation forward.
As Seema Sharma, from the Women’s Dentists Network, says: ‘The fight for equality begins by battling many people’s first emotional response to the equality and diversity conversation: “I’m not biased.”
‘Fear, shame, and uncertainty about how to overcome our biases is a major hurdle to accepting (and therefore addressing) the current reality. This is that the female experience is not inclusive.’
Let us also be clear that it is not an attack on men when we talk about this issue.
When women bring sexism or sexual harassment to light, it is not because we are saying that all men within our profession are sexist or misogynists. It is also not downplaying any discriminatory experiences men may have themselves.
From conversations with my husband and male colleagues, I know that this is not something the majority of men want to see happening within our profession either.
The problem is that when you haven’t seen it happening or experienced it, it is easy to think it is not a problem. It is.
I believe that the onus is on us all collectively to address sexism, harassment, bias and discrimination of all kinds in the workplace.
Women in dentistry
Dentistry is a profession where women have ample opportunities to succeed. I myself am a testament to that. I have a successful career to date and was very young when I started my own practice.
An interesting article was published in the BDJ last year on: ‘100 years of women in the dental profession in the UK, 1918-2018‘. This charted the history of women in our profession and their many contributions to the field.
In addition, a 2019 report by the British Dental Association showed that 47% of dentists today are female.
Dentistry is often seen as a ‘meritocracy’, where career progression is based on merit rather than on any other factors. But, as Sellars points out: ‘The concept of a meritocracy is perpetrated by the historically patriarchal nature of leadership structure in dentistry. “Merit” is not seen as objective and is affected by all manner of bias, leading to men being selected over women at almost every stage of career development.
‘We may have the same finishing line, but the starting line is often very different.’
Women undervalued across dentistry
Roger Kline discusses this concept further. He suggests bias is embedded within the concept of merit, even from the recruitment stage.
He says: ‘We know that candidate characteristics such as gender, ethnicity class and disability all influence recruitment decisions allowing affinity bias or criteria as “will he fit in” to influence our perceptions of candidate “merit”. “Merit” in other words, is not an objective standard untainted by bias as a wealth of research found.’
Further evidence shows that females are still out-earned by men. To the tune of roughly £10,000 per annum within dentistry.
And: ‘Women dentists continue to be undervalued across our profession and under-represented in leadership positions.’ Something needs to change.
I recently read the book Invisible women: data bias in a world designed for men by Caroline Criado Perez, which was a real eye-opener. It exposes the fact that data largely fails to take into account gender. It treats men as the default and women as atypical. This means that bias and discrimination are at the very root of the crucial decisions we make within our society.
I highly recommend it to anyone interested in how we can begin to shine a light on these ingrained biases.
Inequality, it seems, is still ever-present. But what about sexism in terms of inappropriate comments, jokes or language used in our profession?
It’s time to call out sexually inappropriate comments
It is a sad fact that many women have experienced sexually inappropriate behaviour. Or been the victim of unwanted sexual behaviours at work.
This may range from suggestive comments about appearance and invading personal space, to groping and out and out sexual assault.
The spectrum is wide. But for me, it’s these often brushed off comments that are very dangerous. They often go unreported and unchecked and keep sexism alive and well.
My view is that no one should feel intimidated at work or anywhere else, for that matter. Ever.
Claire Stevens, a consultant in paediatric dentistry and founding member of the Diversity in Dentistry Action group, recently spoke out about the issue herself. She points out that many women don’t feel confident to speak out. Especially early on in their careers.
‘When I was younger, I didn’t always have the confidence to handle sexism. 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.’
This is exactly how it has been for me. Since the #Metoo movement, more and more women have spoken out about it. But many more have kept things to themselves, especially in the workplace.
I have experiences myself where somebody makes sexually suggestive comments to me that they just would not say to another man.
At the time, I just ignored it and acted like it didn’t happen. We almost expect that you should let it go.
But if my daughter came home and told me someone said something like that to her, I would be mortified.
Like Claire, I did not have the confidence to speak out about things when I was younger. I put up with inappropriate comments thinking that was just how it is.
Whereas if it happened now, I would perceive those comments completely differently and react differently.
How do we tackle this issue sensitively without causing more division?
Stevens says it perfectly when she writes: ‘We must call sexism out. But it needs doing in a calm and appropriate way.
‘You may have to re-educate somebody who holds a set of beliefs throughout their entire lifespan. And, actually, I can imagine it is quite unsettling for somebody to challenge you.
‘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.’
I couldn’t agree with this more. For me, it is about awareness and about keeping professionalism at the forefront at all times.
Be professional. Behave appropriately and know when not to keep talking or acting in a certain way.
Don’t laugh along with a sexist joke. Or give the person who said the inappropriate comment more ammunition to keep going. And don’t crack a joke in the workplace that you might think is funny, but that may offend someone else.
Always think twice before speaking. If somebody says something in front of you, be there to diffuse the situation. Call it out if it is bullying or harassment because that’s just wrong.
There’s no room for that in the workplace or any place anymore.
I think people in ownership capacities like myself have more responsibility, and I am very aware of that. I sit and have lunch with my staff because I believe it’s a good way to get to know your staff, to see how they’re speaking to people.
People in positions of authority definitely have to take more ownership and not turn a blind eye, thinking: ‘I’ll just pretend I never heard that.’
If you have experienced sexual harassment or sexism, make notes on what made you feel uncomfortable. Write down the dates and times. Why did you feel uncomfortable? Was it the words they say? How somebody says them? Who it they say it in front of? Did you feel undermined? Was it that someone got too close and affected your personal space?
Make a note of what it is so you know and are clear in your own head. You can say: ‘I feel uncomfortable when this happens, or when you say this, or when you say it in front of somebody.’
At that point, seek advice. If you’re feeling harassment in any way, you have protection.
Registered mentors, like me, are out there. So you can always seek advice from your mentor if you have one.
As a dental professional, you will obviously register with a defence organisation. They are not just for patient complaints. You can ring them up for advice.
There are also support groups such as the Mental Health for Dentists Facebook group or Dentists for Dentists. That’s usually a good way of getting a varied opinion.
‘Stamp it out’
We need to keep talking about issues like misogyny. If things do happen, we should raise them. We shouldn’t just let them go.
But there are ways and means to raise things. Always be sensitive to everyone’s situation.
It may be that the person who is making you feel uncomfortable has no idea. If you don’t give them the opportunity to change and make modifications before escalating something, that’s not right either.
Without sounding too corny, just be kind. I don’t think there’s anything that we cannot solve if we are just kind.
There is still considerable bias present in our world at large and, therefore, within dentistry too. It’s ingrained in our culture.
Being a mother and mentor, it’s really important for me to break down those barriers and work towards more equality for my daughter’s generation and the next generation of dentists I am mentoring.
We need to be more open about inequality in all its forms and work together to stamp it out for a better future for all of us.
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