How male dental hygienists are breaking down gender roles

By Irene Esteves, RDH
December 18, 2013

While it is no secret that the majority of dental hygienists are women, the growth of the number of male hygienists seems to slowly be rising. However, while the gender role within the profession continues to break down, the outside world where one must look for a job continues to be a challenge to many.

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Of course the best way to investigate the experiences of male hygienists is simply to ask. After interviewing a 2010 male graduate, whose class only had himself and one other male, I was able to gain a little insight as to understanding his perspectives and experiences in the field. I found that his experiences very much showed the continued necessity of breaking down gender roles both within the professional community and general population.

One of the most interesting stories was a memory from one of the interviewee’s days in school. When completing a rotation at a transitional facility, a patient that he was to treat adamantly refused service simply because he was a male. This was his first experience with this type of feedback, but luckily a professor stepped in and spoke with the patient about the fact that his ability and training was equal to any female present, which resulted in the patient finally accepting treatment for that day. The interviewee mentions that this particular experience was a shocking introduction of what was a natural occurrence in the dental field. However, one highlight is the fact that after explanation by a professor, the patient changed their mind. Perhaps then, one of the keys to breaking down the mindsets of many about gender roles for dental hygienists may need to come with help from those in authority who can explain and gain acceptance of something that is not considered the norm. This, in the smallest of levels, is progress.

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Progress is indeed much needed after continuing to hear about the challenges in the work force and the reason for it. Some of the commentary of my interviewee discussed his thoughts as to the fact that after searching and going through a number of job interviews, he found that it was easier to be hired by female dentists and that the most viable jobs for himself would be entering public health or prison dentistry. These while both great potential sectors to work in, is still quite limiting. The interviewee even mentions parents’ preference to have females work on their children with their particular excuse being that he had to have much larger hands because he was male.

Yet while this particular interviewee did undergo many challenges because of his gender, it is of course not always the case. My particular private practice with a male dentist has a male hygienist in payroll and another male RDH in my graduating class is working in pediatric dentistry. However, generally male hygienists commonly do encounter more challenges. It is great that many schools have classes with more and more males present, which was noticeable to me as when I completed presentations for various dental hygiene classes within California. My interviewee for this article also has a positive spirit in that he believes that while it may take time to break down some stigmas, that over time, males too will be accepted easily in to the dental hygiene role as everyone has potential to be great hygienists.



Born and raised in California, Irene Esteves graduated from the University of the Pacific with a B.S. in Biological Sciences and from the University of Southern California with a B.S. in Dental Hygiene and Masters in Public Health. Currently, she works in private practice, teaches as a clinical instructor at USC School of Dentistry's Periodontology Department, and as an educational consultant of TePe USA. Irene stays active within the community by volunteering at local events and through her involvement with the Los Angeles Dental Hygiene Society as VP of Continuing Education.

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