Skip to content Skip to navigation

Symposium focus: How to draw more women to Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery

OMFS residents, from left, Sara Anderson, Kelly Sayre and Karen Carver in an operating room at the U-M hospital.

Ann Arbor, Mich., Jan. 16, 2018 -– A symposium focused on increasing the number of women in the field of oral and maxillofacial surgery is drawing speakers from around the country to the University of Michigan Friday and Saturday, Jan. 19-20.

The event is organized by the School of Dentistry’s Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery/Hospital Dentistry. Faculty, residents, fellows and dental students will participate in the program, which includes discussions and networking opportunities to promote this surgical specialty.

Department chairman Dr. Brent Ward addressed the issue last year as he discussed priorities for the department in the context of its 100th anniversary celebration. As the department begins its second century, drawing more women into the field and into the U-M program is one of his top priorities, he said.

The specialty began at U-M in 1917 under the direction of Dr. Chalmers J. Lyons, a foundational figure who led the development of the dental and surgical specialty into what today is OMFS. It wasn’t until 1980 that the first woman, Helen Zylman, joined the U-M program, but many of the classes have continued to remain entirely male. The last three years have been a good sign of progress, Ward said, with three women currently among the 18 residents in the program, the most at one time in the history of the department.

Ward notes that half of the graduating dental school students each year are now women, yet few choose to apply to OMFS resident training programs. “We are not effectively recruiting from a pool that could make a tremendous difference in the face of the specialty moving forward,” he said. “We think this is important for our current and future success. With this symposium, we want to create a place for discussion and dialogue that can help address this issue here and across the nation. We want to be a platform for change.”

The three women currently in the U-M OMFS training program -– Sara Anderson, Karen Carver and Kelly Sayre -– say it’s important for girls and young women to see women in positions of leadership. They cite mentorship as another important aspect of drawing more women into any career path, particularly science, technology, engineering and math – the so-called STEM careers.

“I can say that I have been so fortunate my entire life to have very strong female role models, and I think that might be lacking for some people,” said Anderson, who is in her third year of the six-year residency. “When I was in high school, I was a research assistant for a woman who had a PhD in organic chemistry and she implanted in me the interest in science.  Then I went to engineering school at Duke and our dean at the time was a woman. At NYU for dental school, many of my mentors were women and there were several female residents in the OMFS program. So I saw women in these roles and I was able to visualize myself doing it, which I think is a privilege that not every girl has. And that might be one of the reasons that women don’t go into these professions.”

Carver, a fourth-year resident, said mentorship is important at every step of a person’s educational and career path. “Just having somebody to specifically say, ‘You can do this. Here’s how I did it, here are my recommendations for you,’ ” she said. As a dental student at the University of North Carolina, she admired the way several women residents conducted themselves. “They were always available to me if I needed anything as I thought about oral surgery, so I think that was crucial.”

Part of the reason women may not choose OMFS as often as other careers, the residents said, is that it is a difficult and expensive six-year commitment that follows four years of dental school. U-M residents must have a DDS, then complete both a medical degree and the OMFS training.  Only three residents are accepted each year out of about 100 applicants. The days are long, the training is demanding and the cost reaches hundreds of thousands of dollars. Those factors may discourage new dentists who want to start earning income with a practice and-or start a family, the residents said.

Sayre, a fourth-year resident, said it is important that the recruiting and mentoring message also emphasizes how rewarding the career is in terms of improving the lives of patients and their families. “We want to help younger dental students and residents understand that it is worth it, that it’s not just possible, but it’s worth it, too,” Sayre said. “We talk about the challenges – that training is difficult, and it should be. In order to become a good surgeon, you need to be well-trained. But it’s important that people understand the reward once you are trained, that it’s all worth it.”

The three residents worked with OMFS faculty and staff to draw speakers to the symposium from numerous dental schools and medical centers from around the country, including UCLA, Washington, Emory, Maryland, Oregon, Harvard and U-M. Janice Lee, clinical director of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, will be a keynote speaker on Saturday.

“Only recently have we come to the point where there have been enough women in the profession to have this critical mass where we can have a bigger conversation and get together with things like this symposium.  I think we are at a turning point,” Carver said.

Anderson said the ultimate goal is to not need the current discussion. “We’re happy to participate in this conference, to put it on, to bring these conversations together so that one day it’s just that you are a surgeon – not a female surgeon, just a surgeon.”

More information on the symposium is available on the event website.


###

The University of Michigan School of Dentistry is one of the nation’s leading dental schools engaged in oral health care education, research, patient care and community service.  General dental care clinics and specialty clinics providing advanced treatment enable the school to offer dental services and programs to patients throughout Michigan.  Classroom and clinic instruction prepare future dentists, dental specialists, and dental hygienists for practice in private offices, hospitals, academia and public agencies.  Research seeks to discover and apply new knowledge that can help patients worldwide.  For more information about the School of Dentistry, visit us on the Web at: www.dent.umich.edu.  Contact: Lynn Monson, associate director of communications, at dentistry.communications@umich.edu, or (734) 615-1971.