Tall poppy syndrome and its effect on women in dentistry

Martina Hodgson

Dr Martina Hodgson discusses ‘tall poppy syndrome’ and why it continues to have a significant impact on the successes of women in dentistry. 

A white paper was recently released detailing a study carried out to highlight the effect of ‘tall poppy syndrome’ on the success of women in business around the world.

Tall poppy syndrome refers to the ingrained culture of criticising high-achieving women in the workplace, and the desire by others to ‘cut’ these women down.

It seems these women are viewed as somewhat of a threat by their peers, even if this perception is subconscious. I believe women in dentistry are no exception to this phenomenon.

In ancient Rome, legend has it that if a poppy were to grow too tall and out shadow the others it would be cut down to size. It is this phenomenon that women around the world battle with every day in the workplace.

While women represent over half of all dentists leaving dental school, tall poppy syndrome continues to be a major issue for women in dentistry. Female dentists who are highly skilled and successful often find themselves criticised, belittled, or bizarrely even ostracised by their colleagues and peers (yes, I have seen this).

‘You mean a dental nurse?’

I believe one of the reasons for tall poppy syndrome in dentistry is a hangover from the days when the perception was that most dentists were white, middle aged men.

How many times during my career (particularly my early career) was I corrected when I told people I was a dentist. ‘You mean a dental nurse?’ they would say. They were baffled that a young woman could possibly achieve the heady heights of a dental degree.

Is it that female dentists who succeed in their careers are viewed as a threat to the status quo? Is their success seen as a challenge to this male-dominated culture? We continue to struggle with the facts that the majority of faculty members and dental practice owners are still men.

You only have to go back a few years and a cursory glance at Dentistry’s Top 50 most influential people in dentistry will reveal very few women on that list.

Women have a nasty habit of downplaying their accomplishments. Studies have shown that women are more likely to attribute their success to luck or other external factors rather than their own abilities.

This self-deprecating behaviour can lead to the perception by patients and colleagues alike that the woman is not as skilled or qualified as her male colleagues, triggering tall poppy syndrome.

Encourage a culture of support

If we’re not shouting about our achievements when our male counterparts are, how can we hope to gain respect? Or be selected for promotion or put forward for opportunities? No one’s going to do it for us.

Don’t succumb to princess syndrome too, thinking as long as you work hard and do well someone will eventually notice you. More likely they will have noticed the squeaky wheel a long time before they notice you.

All this isn’t going to be great for your mental health either. Especially at a time when there have never been so many problems in dentistry with mental health.

We must keep raising awareness of the issue and encourage a culture of support and recognition for female dentists. Women in dentistry must be encouraged to celebrate their achievements and highlight their skills and abilities without fear of retribution.

I believe mentoring is so important to the confidence and careers of young female dentists. We should be providing more mentorship and networking opportunities for our female colleagues.

Let tall poppies flourish

I see the tall poppies in dentistry. In the downplaying of achievements, the hiding of ambition. Ambition is a dirty word to come out of a woman’s mouth. Not very ‘ladylike’.

So we hide our ambition. Oh yes, the incredible things I have achieved I secretly always wanted to. I just never told anyone. Not ever. I was ashamed at my own ambition.

That’s why I push my team so hard. I want to make them see their most audacious dreams become a reality and be proud if it. We celebrate and encourage every success.

If women aren’t going to lift each other up, what hope do we have?

Let’s all face our deeply ingrained prejudices (we’re all guilty), and push them squinting into the light. Where the tall poppies can flourish.

More information on the white paper can be found here: The Tallest Poppy: High-performing women pay a steep price for success – Women of Influence.

Sign up to our Celebrating Women in Dentistry webinar here, taking place today (Thursday 30 March) at 7pm.

Read more in our Celebrating Women in Dentistry series here:

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