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The Me Too Movement and the dental office: Steps dental hygienists can take

June 18, 2018
Although dental hygienists may not have experienced a sexual assault on the job in dentistry, many have experienced an unwelcome advance from an employer and/or patient that caused discomfort and/or caused work to suffer.

"The number one line of defense is clear
communication supported with good body
language to emphasize your distaste with
the offensive behavior and make clear
it is unacceptable."

By Linda Meeuwenberg, RDH, MA, MA

“In 2006, Tarana Burke founded the ‘me too movement’ to help survivors of sexual violence, particularly young women of color from low wealth communities, find pathways to healing” and “to ensure survivors know they’re not alone in their journey.” According to their website, 17,000 sexual assaults on the job have been reported since 1998 (

In October 2017, the hashtag #MeToo was popularized by Alyssa Milano when she encouraged women to tweet about their experiences and "give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem internationally." The response on Twitter included high-profile posts from several celebrities, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd, Jennifer Lawrence, and Uma Thurman.

Although you may not have experienced a sexual assault on the job in dentistry, I am fairly certain you have experienced an unwelcome advance from an employer and/or patient that made you feel uncomfortable and/or caused your work to suffer. It is rarely something that is discussed in the dental hygiene classroom. When it happens, most are in shock and paralyzed with what to say or do.

Yes, it happened to me on my first job when I was 19 years-old. The dentist followed me into the dark room and shut the door and made a lewd comment. I was frozen. I quit the next week. As it was only a one-day-a-week position, my other employer quickly added another day to my schedule. I never reported the incident and wonder how many others were treated inappropriately in his employment.

Protection from workplace harassment

What constitutes an unlawful act in the workplace? Workplace harassment (including sexual harassment) laws are part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII, a set of laws to prevent discrimination. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency that interprets and enforces discrimination laws. In other words, it is unlawful to create a hostile work environment by federal law and has been since 1964. The law was written for employers with 15 or more employees.

The employer has an obligation to provide a safe, working environment. A hostile environment is defined as unwelcomed serious or pervasive conduct that has the effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creates an offensive work environment. What constitutes a hostile environment can be different for each individual and thus the ambiguity of the translation of this law. I may find a hug from my employer as an acceptable behavior, whereas many of you may find the hug to be embarrassing and/or unwelcome.

What if you are employed in an office with less than 15 employees? Many hygienists work in a small office environment with a solo dentist business owner, where there is no human resources office. Each individual state handles such claims and often applies them to smaller numbers of employees. Therefore, even if your workplace has fewer than 15 employees, you still may be able to file a claim in state court, with your state's government agency that enforces anti-discrimination law, or both. You may also consider filing a civil law infraction for recourse. Find an attorney that specializes in these types of cases. Here is a useful site to look up your state.

You can file a claim online in the comfort of your own home. There is a very useful link on the first page titled: “What You Should Know: What to Do if You Believe You Have Been Harassed at Work.”

So, if these state and federal laws have been around since 1964, why aren’t more people reporting these incidents? As we have learned from the #MeToo movement, many of the victims were in a lesser position of power with their accused often an employer or potential employer. The stories I have collected from dental hygienists are troubling and support this notion. Many cite fear, not knowing what to do, and retaliation as a reason for not reporting.

An employer could react with retaliation, terminating your employment, and placing you on a blacklist with other dentists in your area. Many depend on that weekly paycheck to make ends meet in their families—particularly single parents. Somehow these perpetrators sense the vulnerability. I have had reports of women who are divorced indicating that the employer thought it was “OK” to make advances, even though most of them were already married.

A formula for action

Where do you start? The number one line of defense is clear communication supported with good body language to emphasize your distaste with the offensive behavior and make clear it is unacceptable. Hopefully, with good eye contact, upright posture, and an authoritative tone of voice, this will stop the behavior and perhaps illicit an apology. Here is the formula:

  1. Immediately, when an inappropriate behavior occurs, look the person in the eye and state that what he/she just did is unacceptable. Simple as that. Then, tell them what you expect. “I expect that this will stop now.” One of the toughest things to do is remain unemotional as this is an emotionally charged issue. Stay calm. Document completely with time, date, and actions.
  2. If the behavior reoccurs or escalates, you need to repeat number 1 stated above. Document again
  3. If you are in a practice with 15 or more employees, check with your Human Resources representative to discuss their protocol.
  4. Go online to the EEOC office at
  5. If there are less than 15 employees, go to your state website to determine which branch is in charge of discrimination.
  6. Finally, you may have no recourse but to consult an attorney who can help you resolve the issue. Be prepared to seek other employment opportunities.

Most importantly, be sure that you document everything. Do not be a victim. Take action swiftly. Too often women have allowed the inappropriate behavior to continue for far longer than necessary. We work in close proximity to our patients and often in a small office, making us vulnerable to unwanted behaviors from our employer and/or patients. Make sure you are seated so that your intimate body parts are not coming in contact with your patient.

I am pleased that RDH Under One Roof 2018 is hosting Lil Caperila and myself to discuss this important topic at this year’s conference. The seminar is titled, “Time’s up! Sexual Harassment in the Workplace," and will be presented on Friday, August 1.

If you have any incidents that you would like to share with me, I welcome your input on this important subject. Please contact me at [email protected].

Linda Meeuwenberg, RDH, MA, MA, is known for her role in education at Ferris State University. As Professor Emeritus and CEO of Professional Development Association, Inc. she has delivered hundreds of seminars, keynote addresses, and enjoyed serving as an emcee in her neighborhood associations. An active volunteer, contributing author in the dental and lay industry, she also serves as a key opinion leader for several dental companies. Her website is: