Women making strides in oral and maxillofacial surgery

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In the specialty of oral and maxillofacial surgery, Elaine Stuebner, DDS, is a pioneer in almost the same sense as the women who helped drive wagon trains across a brave, new world.

Oral and maxillofacial surgeons are dental specialists who treat conditions, defects, injuries and aesthetic aspects of the jaws, face, mouth and teeth. OMSs care for patients with problem wisdom teeth, facial pain and misaligned jaws. They replace lost teeth with dental implants, remove cancerous tumors, rebuild faces injured by trauma, perform cosmetic surgery and provide safe and effective anesthesia.

A Chicago OMS for more than 40 years, Stuebner encountered resistance when she began her training shortly after World War II. "In dental school I was told, 'You're taking a space from a veteran,'" she recalls. "I was told that it's a man's profession and no one would trust me."

Such comments were "just enough to aggravate me but not discourage me. I resolved to enter the field," says Stuebner, a member of the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons.

Stuebner estimates that less than 1% of the students were women during her days in dental school. Actually, the proportion may have been higher. An article in a 2001 issue of The Compendium of Continuing Education in Dentistry indicated that in the 1920s, about 3% of dentists were women. By 1999, according to the American Dental Association, 15% of dentists were women.

An increase from 3% to 15% in nearly three-quarters of a century may not seem very impressive. But consider the shift in gender balance in the ADA's figures for "new" dentists, those who graduated from dental school in 1990 or later: in 1999, 33.5% were women.

Women do appear to be the future of dentistry. In 2000, 37% of new dental students in the United States were women. However, among women in private practice dentistry, only 0.8% are OMSs, compared with 4.2% of men.

During the past seven years, Mary Allaire, AAOMS manager of advanced education and resident affairs, estimates a 2% increase in women entering four-year OMS residency training.

"We're asking women to defeat their biological clock," says Seattle OMS Darlene Chan, DDS, in reference to the long OMS residency. When her youngest daughter was born, Chan didn't take much of a maternity leave. "While I was in the hospital, there was a walkway between my office and the hospital. I walked to my office in my robe to check messages."

When Chan attends professional meetings, she tells her male colleagues what an advantage it is to have a wife. "I don't mean a spouse," she explains. "I mean all the things a wife means -- a wife is the campfire around which everything in the family happens."

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