March is International Women’s Month and the perfect opportunity to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. It’s a time when we can pause and have real conversations about the progress being made toward gender parity and the mountains we still face to reach equality.
My hope is that this article will celebrate the fearless women in dentistry and dive into an authentic conversation with my friend Dr. Denise Cua to discuss how we can do better as a society to move towards equality for women.
Recently, I’ve been reminded that the sky's the limit when women lean into who they truly are and what they’re meant to do. They graduate from prestigious ivy league schools, start and run their own practices, lead thriving teams, impact their communities and take care of their partners and children. What each woman has pushed through to lead successful personal and professional lives can not be overstated. It would have been much easier for each of these ladies to take a step back and not go for it, or be less ambitious, or not push through criticism and stigmas. However, they chose to ask themselves the question, “What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?”
“Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face. Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. Fear of overreaching. Fear of being judged. Fear of failure. And the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter.” Sheryl Sandburg
Let me introduce you to a woman and pioneer who chose to overcome her fear, Lucy Hobbs Taylor, the first female American to earn her degree in dentistry.
The year was 1865 and, having been denied entry into Eclectic College of Medicine because she was a woman, Lucy obtained her dental education from the dean of the Ohio College of Dental Surgery privately. She did not receive a degree upon completion. After an apprenticeship with a male dentist, she ventured out on her own and opened a practice in Cincinnati in 1861. The practice quickly became successful, and, in 1865, The Iowa State Dental Society granted her membership, stating, “the profession has nothing in its pursuits foreign to the instincts of women.” She received her degree in 1866 from Ohio College of Dental Surgery. Lucy was, by all accounts, a powerful lady. She was a suffragist, advocate and educator, having trained her own husband to become a dentist. By the turn of the 20th century, there were 1,000 women dentists (Dental Products Report, 2015).
While we have a long way to go, women like Lucy have inspired other women to earn their degrees in dentistry. Currently, ADA data shows that 65.5% of all dentists are male and 34.5% of dentists are female. This data spanned over the past 20 years and is a big increase from 2001 when only 16% of all dentists were female. Not only have women had to fight & pioneer their way to earn degrees and break into a male-dominated profession, once inside, there are systemic issues and biases that run deep that we need to address.
This past year I have had countless conversations with women in dentistry who have experienced, or still are experiencing, gender biases and inequality. The stories are personal, real and very hard to hear at times. The truth is that it is still happening and bringing awareness through authentic conversations is the first step to creating change.
Meet Dr. Denise Cua
Last week, Dr. Cua of Perch Dentistry and I jumped on a Zoom call to discuss her story, journey into dentistry, and the highs and lows she’s experienced being a female entrepreneur and practice owner.
Denise Cua was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA and received a BS in Biological Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. She graduated in 2014 with a DMD degree from Tufts University School of Dental Medicine in Boston, MA. Moved to Dallas, TX in 2015 and started working for a DSO until opening a practice with her husband/business partner Dr. Shivam Patel. Last stop was Cedar Park, TX, a suburb north of Austin, where they began a dental startup, Perch Dentistry, in 2019.
Welcome to my part of my interview with Dr. Denise Cua…(watch the full interview).
Joanna: Part of the reason I wanted to have you on the March episode of The Story Project was because of the multiple conversations you and I have had about gender biases and inequality in dentistry towards women. As a female boss, entrepreneur and startup practice owner, what types of gender bias have you experienced? Where does it come from typically?
Dr. Cua: Even before being a practice owner, I was working for a DSO and really driven to get promoted. Two years out of school I got the dental director position and mentored other docs who were new to the practice but had been in dentistry longer than I had. There was one male doctor in particular who stood out to me in a negative light because of his passive-aggressive behavior towards me. He would throw his dirty masks and gloves on my personal belongings. It was at that time I realized that there is a real problem in dentistry with accepted stereotypes towards women. I’ve actually had patients squeeze my arm to see if I was strong enough to provide treatment. If the male doctors have this type of demeanor towards their female associates then the patients will too. It really has a trickle down effect.
Luckily, I’m in a startup with my husband and he would never act that way toward me, but it’s common among company reps that come into our office selling their products. They’ll always look at Shivam and have a super involved conversation with him about a hand piece but won’t even look at me. I’ll have questions but they put me off. It’s disheartening because I am just as much a part of this as he is and have just as much of a voice. I have a lot of weight as to whether we’re going to purchase that product! It’s just one of those things that I’ve come to terms with but at the same time we can’t let it define us. Unfortunately, it is still out there.
“It’s disheartening because I am just as much a part of this as he is and have just as much of a voice.”
Joanna: What do you do when another male dentist or guy in general speaks down to you or makes an assumption? Is there a good way or a bad way to handle this situation? Is there a way to handle it with emotional intelligence?
Dr. Cua: That’s tough. I think depending on who you are as a person you'll want to handle it differently and you won’t be satisfied until you handle it the way that makes sense to you. For me, I am good at concealing how I really feel out of concern for the repercussions. I try to calculate A, B, C, D, and so on and play through all the scenarios in my head to see which one will be the best response. I pause before something comes out of my mouth. I also ask myself the question, what’s more important? Is it better for me to use my energy fighting back for what he did or is it better for me to respond professionally and save my energy for someone who respects me. I am very careful where I use my energy.
“The question I ask myself is, what will serve me more in this situation?”
Joanna: How do you personally use your voice on social media to help create new mindsets towards equality for women in the profession?
Dr. Cua: Personally, I’m a little more private on social media and definitely keep my life separate from the practice’s social media. I’ve never been vocal about my experiences on social media and instead produce content that portrays us as equals. To be transparent, I pretty much run our social media and it’s my voice. We always laugh about Shivam writing the captions because they’d be so dry! Everyone has their own definition about what their accounts should be. Some show a lot of teeth and a lot of “before and after” photos and so on. At first, we thought we would do what every startup does and document construction. Then we realized we were growing our Instagram following because we were just being ourselves and it started inspiring a lot of people. Dentistry is not everyone’s favorite, so why don’t you put out something people will enjoy? We have gotten criticized that we’re so happy all the time and positive, but it’s not to say that we don’t understand that people are struggling.
“Dentistry is not everyone’s favorite, so why don’t you put out something on social media people will enjoy?”
Joanna: In spite of all the hills to climb and mindsets to overcome, why is it worth it to be a woman in dentistry and pursue that calling?
Dr. Cua: If dentistry is your passion, then it’s worth it. There are so many avenues in dentistry to be successful and exercise your love for marketing, influencing and design. If you love people and you love being a therapist and interacting all the time with people, then this profession is for you. Just because we may get put down at times as women, [it] shouldn’t deter you away.
Joanna: If you could say one thing to female dentists struggling to be the real, authentic version of who they are, what would that be?
Dr. Cua: Your voice is needed, and imagine how many people you’ll impact just being yourself. If we let other dentists dictate who we should be, then we’ll keep seeing the same cookie-cutter dentists all the time. Don’t let the fear and rejection get in your way of being who you want to be. People and your patients will love how authentic you are. There are so many dentists out there that I follow and love that are successful because they’re FEARLESS. There’s only one life to live, so be authentic and fearless.
Joanna: Dr. Cua, I cannot thank you enough for taking this time to share your story and heart with us on The Story Project. If you’d like to stay in touch with Dr. Cua follow her at: @perch_dentistry @dcua
One of my favorite movies of ALL time is The Holiday with Jude Law, Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, and of course Jack Black. The best scene is when Arthur Abbott has dinner with Iris and consults with her on a recent breakup.
Arthur Abbott said to Iris, “He let you go. This is not a hard one to figure out. Iris, in the movies we have leading ladies and we have the best friend. You, I can tell, are a leading lady, but for some reason you are behaving like the best friend.”
Become the leading lady of your own life. This line speaks to me at my core. What does this mean for us? It means playing a lead role in our very own lives begins with clarity around “who we are.” So often, women play second fiddle or shrink back from the space they were meant to take up in this world. We were created to speak up, take up space, live and thrive in our own way. To all of the lovely ladies leading the way and pioneering a new path in dentistry: remind your brain and those voices of nonsense that this world needs you. Dentistry needs you, not just part of you, but all of you.
Studio EightyEighty is your story-driven marketing agency. This means we believe discovering and investing in your unique, your why and your story should be the focus of your digital identity. We proudly represent hundreds of diverse women in the dental industry and have had the honor of coming alongside them to help create brands that stand out from all of the noise. If you want to stand out from the crowd, then we’d love to hear from you. If you’d like to hear first steps to our approach, then check out our Story Driven Marketing Guide. It’s a gift from us to you. We also love hanging out on Instagram so you can find us @studio8e8
If you are interested in telling your story, then shoot me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you!