Gender differences in first-year dental students’ motivation to attend dental school
Women's role in the field of dentistry has historically been limited to the dental auxiliary fields, rather than that of D.D.S. or D.M.D. Today, women are nearly 38 percent of U.S. dental school students and 14 percent of active practitioners. The slow(er) influx of women into dentistry has been little studied by dental educators. During the 2000-01 academic year, we conducted a survey of first-year dental students at a sample of publicly funded U.S. dental schools. The purpose of the survey was to assess gender differences in motives for pursuing a dental career. The data show that male dental students rate self-employment and business-related motives as more important, while female dental students rate people-oriented motives more highly. Factor analysis revealed four distinct clusters of motives for pursuing a dental career: a financial motive, a business-oriented motive, a people-oriented or caring motive, and a flexibility motive. Women scored significantly higher than men on the caring factor, whereas the reverse was true on the business factor. Male and female students rated financial and flexibility motives equally. The implications of the results for attracting students to the profession of dentistry are discussed.
952 Journal of Dental Education ■ Volume 66, No. 8
Milieu in Dental Schools and Practice
Gender Differences in First-Year Dental
Students’ Motivation to Attend Dental School
Mark Scarbecz, M.A., Ph.D.; Judith A. Ross, D.M.D., M.S.
Abstract: Women’s role in the field of dentistry has historically been limited to the dental auxiliary fields, rather than that of
D.D.S. or D.M.D. Today, women are nearly 38 percent of U.S. dental school students and 14 percent of active practitioners. The
slow(er) influx of women into dentistry has been little studied by dental educators. During the 2000-01 academic year, we
conducted a survey of first-year dental students at a sample of publicly funded U.S. dental schools. The purpose of the survey was
to assess gender differences in motives for pursuing a dental career. The data show that male dental students rate self-employment
and business-related motives as more important, while female dental students rate people-oriented motives more highly. Factor
analysis revealed four distinct clusters of motives for pursuing a dental career: a financial motive, a business-oriented motive, a
people-oriented or caring motive, and a flexibility motive. Women scored significantly higher than men on the caring factor,
whereas the reverse was true on the business factor. Male and female students rated financial and flexibility motives equally. The
implications of the results for attracting students to the profession of dentistry are discussed.
Dr. Scarbecz is Associate Professor, Department of Pediatric Dentistry and Community Oral Health, and Director of Planning and
Assessment, and Dr. Ross is Associate Professor, Department of Restorative Dentistry, both at the University of Tennessee
College of Dentistry. Direct correspondence to Dr. Mark Scarbecz, University of Tennessee College of Dentistry, 875 Union Ave.,
Memphis, TN 38163; 901-448-1211 (phone); 901-448-7104 (fax); firstname.lastname@example.org.
Key words: dental students, career choice, vocational guidance, gender
Submitted for publication: 8/28/01; accepted 5/23/02
omen’s role in the field of dentistry in the
United States has historically been lim-
ited to the auxiliary fields of dental hy-
giene and dental assisting (99 percent and 96 per-
respectively), rather than to that of
D.D.S. or D.M.D. In 1970, less than 1 percent of den-
tal school graduates were women, compared to 8 per-
cent of medical school graduates.
Ten years later,
women were still only 4 percent of active dentists,
while women were 11.4 percent of active physi-
Today, females are nearly 38 percent of all
dental school enrollees and 14.1 percent of active
dental practitioners, which represents an improve-
ment, but is still well below the 23 percent of physi-
cians who are women.
However, the ADA’s Dentist
Workforce Model projects that female active practi-
tioners will make up 28 percent of the dental
workforce in the United States by the year 2020.
Motives for entering the dental profession have
been studied periodically by dental educators. How-
ever, the slow(er) influx of women into dentistry in
the United States and the reasons for women’s entry
into dentistry, compared to those of men, have re-
ceived little attention by dental educators
or by so-
ciologists and psychologists who study work and oc-
cupations. Recent evidence suggests that dental
school enrollment may be entering a period of de-
cline, following a period of significant increases
throughout the early to mid-1990s.
decline may be occurring during a period of increas-
ing demand for dental care and a likely reduction in
the dental workforce due to retirements.
Fifty-four percent of students attending four-year
colleges in the United States are women, and females
earned 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in 2000.
The percentage of female college freshmen who as-
pire to a career in medicine or dentistry has increased
over the past 30 years such that the percentage now
exceeds that of freshman males (6.9 percent vs. 5.8
Thus, women represent an expanding pool
of possible applicants for dental schools.
Understanding students’ motives for choosing
dentistry as a career may aid recruiters in designing
appropriate and effective recruitment materials.
addition, recruiters may inadvertently be sending the
wrong message to students, based on commonly held
gender stereotypes that may no longer be valid. Un-
derstanding the motives of students may also aid re-
cruiters in providing students with a complete and
accurate picture of the profession.
August 2002 ■ Journal of Dental Education 953
For all of these reasons, a careful analysis of
current gender-specific motives for pursuing a ca-
reer in dentistry is appropriate. The goals of this study
• first, to systematically examine gender differences
in motives for attending dental school;
• second, to identify the major underlying factors
or clusters of motives around which dental stu-
dents’ decision making is organized; and
• third, to assess the relative importance of these
underlying factors for male and female dental stu-
dents as they made the choice to pursue a dental
Motives for choosing a career are complex, and
the choice of a career in dentistry is no exception.
Many factors may enter into the career choice calcu-
perceptions of one’s own strengths and weak-
nesses, interests and desires, the willingness and fi-
nancial wherewithal (or lack thereof) to undergo the
lengthy period of training associated with particular
careers, the actual type of work that a particular ca-
reer entails, the working conditions and financial
rewards associated with a career, and the availability
and attractiveness of alternative careers. The relative
importance of these factors may be different for men
and women. Previous studies on motives for attend-
ing dental school have been based on diverse samples
of dental students from both within and outside the
United States. These studies have appeared sporadi-
cally over the past twenty years in the dental educa-
tion literature. While there is some consistency across
studies, none of these studies specifically focused
on gender differences.
Abbott et al.
surveyed first-, second-, and
third-year dental students in Georgia and found that
providing service to others and the opportunity for
self-employment were more frequently ranked as
number one reasons for selecting dentistry as a ca-
reer, while working with one’s hands, time for career
and family, or the pursuit of outside interests were
less frequently ranked as top reasons. Over et al.
surveyed dental students at an Australian university
and examined differences between male and female
students. He and his colleagues found that women
were less concerned than men with the income or
status potential of dentistry. Women were also more
likely than men to emphasize a desire to work with
people and a general interest in the work of dentistry.
Grogono and Lancaster
surveyed freshman through
senior dental students in Louisiana. They reported
that autonomy, working with people, and flexible
work time were the most important factors affecting
career choice in their sample. They also reported
gender differences in that males identified autonomy
most frequently, then working with people, and fi-
nancial rewards, whereas females identified work-
ing with people, autonomy, and flexible work time
as their most important factors. Morris
results of a survey of all first-year dental students in
the UK. In that study, “working with/helping people”
topped the list when students were asked the open-
ended question, “What prompted you to think about
dentistry?” Zadik et al.
surveyed dental students in
Israel who were in the first three (preclinical) years
of a six-year program. The respondents in that study
selected “professional standing” and “financial se-
curity” as their main reasons for choosing a career
in dentistry. Altruistic reasons (“helping people”)
were mentioned by only a few students, and there
were no significant gender differences in the selec-
tion of reasons.
Our study differs from previous studies of stu-
dents’ motives for attending dental school in four sig-
nificant ways. First, rather than focusing on a single
dental school, this study is the first to combine data
from several institutions across the United States.
Second, this study focuses specifically on gender
differences in motives for attending dental school.
Third, the survey upon which this research is based
asked a wider variety and a larger number of ques-
tions regarding motives for attending dental school
than that used in previous research. Fourth, this study
identifies the major underlying factors or clusters of
motives around which dental students’ decision mak-
ing is organized, as well as the relative importance
of these factors for male and female dental students
as they made the choice to pursue a dental career.
Survey data on first-year dental students’ mo-
tives for attending dental school, as well as demo-
graphic information and future career aspirations,
were collected. The questionnaire and research meth-
odology for the study were reviewed and approved
by the University of Tennessee Health Science Cen-
ter Institutional Review Board (IRB).
During the 2000-01 academic year, we con-
tacted dental school administrators at dental schools
across the country, asking them if they would be will-
ing to distribute the questionnaires to their first-year
954 Journal of Dental Education ■ Volume 66, No. 8
students. Institutions were assured that they would
not be individually identified in research reports, nor
would data from any single institution be singled out
in a research report. As an incentive to participate,
we promised each participating school a report of
the results based on their students’ data. These re-
ports were generated and distributed upon comple-
tion of data collection and data entry. Nine publicly
funded dental schools across the country agreed to
participate. A random sample from all schools was
not possible, given the logistical difficulties of ques-
tionnaire administration and the varying IRB require-
ments of each institution. However, the nine dental
schools are geographically diverse, with each major
region of the United States represented.
Survey Instrument Design
The survey instrument was a four-page (single-
sided) self-administered questionnaire. Demographic
variables on the questionnaire included race, gender,
family structure as an adolescent, and parents’ educa-
tion. Previous research has identified these variables
as correlates of educational ambition and attain-
Questions about plans after dental school
were modeled after questions from the annual “Sur-
vey of Dental School Seniors” conducted by the
American Dental Education Association.
the studies cited above indicated that “helping people”
was a strong motive for attending dental school. A set
of questions about volunteer (unpaid) activities was
included on the questionnaire. Students were asked
about their participation in eight different types of
volunteer activities during the previous year.
A list of motive questions was compiled from
the motives listed in previous literature
from discussions with our dental school admissions
officer. We constructed additional questions based
on the second author’s participation in several hun-
dred unstructured interviews with dental school can-
didates as a member of the dental school admissions
committee. Duplicate questions were eliminated from
the list, and questions were reworded to be consis-
tent with an ordinal response scale. Students were
asked to rate the importance of each motive (reason)
for attending dental school using a five point scale
with 5 indicating “Very important” and 1 indicating
“Not at all important.” The final version of the ques-
tionnaire contained thirty motive questions. (Table 1
lists the wording of all thirty motive items.) Students
were also asked whether friends, family, or relatives
were practicing dentists and what alternative careers
they had considered.
All analyses were conducted using Statistical
Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) for Windows,
statistical software. The analysis
consisted of four stages. First, gender differences in
individual motive items were examined using inde-
pendent sample t-tests. Second, factor analysis was
conducted to identify underlying motive factors. Pre-
vious studies on motives for pursuing dental educa-
tion have examined individual survey items when
describing students’ motives, but no study in the den-
tal education literature, to our knowledge, has at-
tempted to identify the underlying dimensions asso-
ciated with dental students’ motives. In the present
study, factor analysis was used to provide additional
insight into the basic dimensions around which stu-
dents’ motives are organized. By focusing on fac-
tors, a better understanding of the central themes
around which students have organized their thinking
about their dental career may be obtained.
Table l. Wording of all thirty motive items from the
1. One, or more, of my relatives is a dentist.
2. One, or more, of my friends is a dentist.
3. It’s easy for dentists to find employment.
4. Dentistry pays better than other job options available
5. I want to be self-employed.
6. I want to treat/help people to improve their appearance.
7. Dentistry has more regular hours than other health
8. My family encouraged me to be a dentist.
9. I can start to practice dentistry independently after
10. I like to work with people.
11. I had good experiences visiting my family dentist and
this lead me to think about a career in dentistry.
12. I like the autonomy that dentists have.
13. A career in dentistry offers job security.
14. Dentists have a flexible work schedule.
15. A career in dentistry will give me enough time to be
with my family.
16. Dentistry gives me the opportunity to work with my
17. Dentistry is a caring profession.
18. Dentistry is a science based profession.
19. I would like to make a lot of money.
20. Dentistry is a prestigious profession.
21. I heard a talk about careers in dentistry in high school.
22. I heard a talk about careers in dentistry in college.
23. My family dentist encouraged me.
24. Teachers and/or counselors encouraged me.
25. A career in dentistry offers financial security.
26. I like the idea of being your own boss.
27. There is not much “on call” work.
28. I really want to help people.
29. Dentists do not have to deal with life and death cases
on a routine basis.
30. I worked in another dental related field and now I
want to be a dentist.
August 2002 ■ Journal of Dental Education 955
Factor analysis is a data-reduction technique.
As Portney and Watkins
describe it, “factor analy-
sis [is used] to examine a large set of variables that
represent elements of an abstract construct, and to
reduce it to a smaller, more manageable set of un-
derlying concepts.” Factor analysis has been used
previously in many other types of dental education
research: to identify underlying dimensions of stu-
dent evaluations of clinical and pre-clinical teach-
sources of stress among dental students,
sumer quality assessment of dentistry,
toward health care issues.
Factor analysis can also
show the relative contribution of each factor or di-
mension to the total variance in the data.
student motive items were analyzed using principal
components factor analysis with a varimax rotation.
The stopping point for establishing factors was an
eigenvalue of 1.0.
The factor loadings resulting
from factor analysis represent the correlation between
each item and an underlying factor,
and thus repre-
sent the strength of the relationship between an item
and an underlying factor. Items that loaded at .40 or
greater on only one factor were included as an item
for a given factor.
In the third stage of the analysis, scales were
constructed based on the factor analysis, and inde-
pendent sample t-tests were used to examine gender
differences in computed scales. In the fourth stage, a
regression analysis was conducted to determine if
gender differences in motives persisted, once the ef-
fects of additional demographic variables were taken
into account. Corresponding p values from statistical
tests were considered significant at values of p < .05.
A total of 430 first-year dental students re-
sponded to the survey during academic year 2000-
01. The sample data closely reflects recent national
(U.S. population) trends in the enrollment of first-
year dental students. The 40.5 percent of the sample
that was female is very close to the percentage of fe-
males enrolling in all U.S. dental schools. In 1999, the
last year for which published data is available, women
were about 38 percent of all first-year dental students
in the United States.
Approximately 34 percent of the
sample were minority (non-white and/or Hispanic)
students, which is equivalent to the national enroll-
ment of minorities: 34 percent in 1999.
have indicated that female dental students are more
culturally diverse than their male counterparts. This is
consistent with our sample in which 47 percent of fe-
male dental students were non-white or Hispanic, com-
pared to 25 percent of male dental students.
Mean age in the sample was twenty-four years;
there was no difference in mean age by gender. About
80 percent of the sample grew up in a two-parent
home. Parents of students in the sample were well
educated: almost 82 percent of fathers and 71 per-
cent of mothers have at least some college educa-
tion. In addition, 42 percent of fathers and 24 per-
cent of mothers have at least some graduate work.
There was no difference in parents’ educational sta-
tus by gender of student. Parents’ educational levels
in our sample also correspond well with other na-
tional data on parents’ education level among dental
Female first-year dental students were less
likely (15 percent) to be married than their male col-
leagues (26 percent), and correspondingly less likely
to have children (9 percent of male students and 5
percent of female students).
Motives for Choosing a Career in
Dentistry: Individual Item Analysis
We replicated past research by first examining
gender differences on individual motive items. The
mean score on each item was calculated for males
and females separately. Table 2 lists the top ten mo-
tives for choosing dentistry for males and females
separately, as determined by the mean score for each
of the items. Statistically significant differences in
the means (p<.05) for a given motive, as determined
by an independent sample t-test, are indicated by an
asterisk (*) if a mean is significantly greater for one
gender than the other, or a cross (†) if a mean is sig-
nificantly lower for one gender than the other.
Eight of the top ten motives appear on both the
male and female list. Three of those items refer to
the conditions of work associated with a dental ca-
reer: “A career in dentistry will give me enough time
to be with my family,” “Dentistry has more regular
hours than other health related professions,” and
“Dentists have a flexible work schedule.” The remain-
ing five that appear on both male and female dental
students’ lists primarily reflect more helping or
people-oriented motives of the students, such as “I
like to work with people,” “I really want to help
people,” and “Dentistry is a caring profession.”
956 Journal of Dental Education ■ Volume 66, No. 8
The relative rating of the items is different for
males and females. The perception of dentistry as a
caring profession as a motive for attending dental
school is rated as a significantly less important reason
(p<.05) for males (4.29) than for females (4.58). Con-
versely, the motive “I really want to help people” is
females’ highest rated reason (4.74) for attending den-
tal school, and is rated as significantly more impor-
tant (p<.05) by female dental students than by males
(4.47). Males include “self-employment” and “being
one’s own boss” in their top ten list and rate these
motives as significantly more important than do fe-
males. “Being one’s own boss” is not even included
among female’s top ten (F
= 4.20), although fe-
males include the desire for autonomy in their top ten
and actually rate it as significantly more important
than do males (F
= 4.32 vs. M
Both males’ and females’ ratings for “A career
in dentistry will give me enough time to be with my
family” put this motive near the top of their top ten
list, and the difference in these mean ratings for males
and females is not statistically significant. “Flexibil-
ity of work hours” and the regular hours associated
with dentistry are also among the top ten motives for
both males and females, with no significant differ-
ence between the two groups.
An initial factor analysis of the motive items
resulted in eight factors, which accounted for 59 per-
cent of the variance in the items. Factors 1-4 ac-
counted for 36 percent of the variance and contained
items relating to students’ perceptions of dentistry
as a career and students’ intrinsic motivation for pur-
Factors 5-7, in contrast, were based on clusters
of items related to the objective experiences of stu-
dents. Factor 5 included four items related to whether
students had received direct encouragement from
families, friends, or dentists (Items # 8, 11, 23, and
24 in Table 1). Factor 6 was based on two items re-
lated to whether students had heard career talks in
high school or college about dentistry (Items # 21
and 22). Factor 7 was based on two items about
whether students had friends or relatives who were
dentists (Items # 1 and 2). Factor 8 was composed of
a single item: “Dentists do not have to deal with life
and death cases on a routine basis,” and accounted
for less than 5 percent of the explained variance in
the data. Female students’ mean rating of the impor-
tance of this item (3.90) was significantly higher
(p<.05) than male students’ mean rating (3.48).
Table 2. Top 10 reasons for pursuing a career in dentistry, for males and females, as determined by mean rating
Males Score Females Score
1. A career in dentistry will give me enough time to be 4.67 1. I really want to help people. 4.74 *
with my family. (.66) (.48)
2. I want to be self-employed. 4.59 * 2. A career in dentistry will give me enough 4.71
(.70) time to be with my family. (.71)
3. I want to treat/help people to improve 4.53 3. I want to treat/help people to improve 4.62
their appearance. (.66) their appearance. (.74)
4. I like the idea of being your own boss. 4.53 * 4. I like to work with people. 4.60
5. I like to work with people. 4.50 5. Dentists have a flexible work schedule. 4.58
6. I really want to help people. 4.47 † 6. Dentistry is a caring profession. 4.58 *
7. Dentists have a flexible work schedule. 4.44 7. A career in dentistry offers job security. 4.46
8. Dentistry has more regular hours than other 4.42 8. Dentistry has more regular hours than other 4.43
health related professions. (.91) health related professions. (.94)
9. A career in dentistry offers financial security. 4.31 9. I like the autonomy that dentists have. 4.32 *
10. Dentistry is a caring profession. 4.29 † 10. I want to be self-employed. 4.25 †
* Significantly Higher than females (p<.05) * Significantly HIGHER than males (p<.05)
† Significantly lower than females (p<.05) † Significantly lower than males (p<.05)
( ) denotes standard deviation
August 2002 ■ Journal of Dental Education 957
Confirmatory factor analysis was conducted
using only those items from Factors 1-4. Cronbach’s
alpha (α), a measure of the reliability of a scale,
was also calculated for the items that made up each
of the four factors. Based on reliability analysis, ad-
ditional items were discarded from two of the fac-
tors. A final confirmatory factor analysis was con-
ducted, which resulted in the following four factors.
Table 3 lists the items that make up the four fac-
tors, their factor loadings, the percentage of variance
explained by each factor, and Cronbach’s alpha for
each of the four factors when the factor is treated as a
scale. The factor analysis reveals that student motives
for pursuing a career in dentistry appear to revolve
around four central themes or dimensions. The reli-
ability of the factors is high, ranging from .70 to .81.
Factor 1, MONEY, is composed of motive items
that refer to the financial and job security aspects of
a career in dentistry. Factor 2 is a PEOPLE factor, as
the items from which this factor is composed refer
to interpersonal motives related to caring for and
helping other people. Factor 3 is a FLEXIBILITY
factor, as it is composed of items that suggest that
dentists have greater freedom and flexibility in sched-
uling their work than other professions, both health-
care related and otherwise. Last, Factor 4 was labeled
the BUSINESS factor, because the items from which
this factor is composed focus on the degree to which
students believe being self-employed and being one’s
own boss are important reasons for pursuing a den-
Four simple additive scales were constructed
that summed up the items for each factor. Because
the different scales have varying numbers of items,
for comparison purposes the metric of the scales was
adjusted by dividing by the number of items. The
lowest possible scale value was 1.0 (Low importance)
to 5.0 (High importance). Scale means were calcu-
lated for males and females, and an independent
sample t-test was used to examine gender differences
in scale scores. Table 4 presents the means on each
scale for males and females.
The mean scale scores for all four scales for
both males and females are near 4.0 or above, indi-
cating that these dimensions are of central impor-
tance to the average first-year dental student. Males
and females score nearly equally on the scales that
purport to measure FLEXIBILITY and financial
Table 3. Factor loadings on primary motive factors
Factor 1 Factor 2 Factor 3 Factor 4
MONEY PEOPLE FLEXIBILITY BUSINESS
Dentistry pays better than other job options available to me. 0.837
I would like to make a lot of money. 0.757
It’s easy for dentists to find employment. 0.737
A career in dentistry offers financial security. 0.692
A career in dentistry offers job security. 0.577
I really want to help people. 0.813
Dentistry is a caring profession. 0.797
I like to work with people. 0.728
I want to treat/help people to improve their appearance. 0.716
A career in dentistry will give me enough time to be with my family. 0.742
Dentists have a flexible work schedule. 0.740
Dentistry has more regular hours than other health related professions 0.735
There is not much “on call” work. 0.595
I want to be self-employed. 0.898
I like the idea of being your own boss. 0.842
Percent of Variance Explained: 19.39 16.33 15.68 11.83
Percent of Cumulative Variance Explained: 19.39 35.72 51.40 63.23
Cronbach’s alpha: 0.81 0.77 0.70 0.84
Note: Factor loadings less than .40 not shown.
Table 4. Motive scale means by gender
MONEY Mean Std. Dev. n p
Males 4.02 0.75 245 .285, n.s.
Females 3.94 0.78 169
PEOPLE Mean Std. Dev. n p
Males 4.45 0.58 249 p < .001
Females 4.63 0.50 173
FLEXIBILITY Mean Std. Dev. n p
Males 4.36 0.66 251 .330, n.s.
Females 4.43 0.62 137
BUSINESS Mean Std. Dev. n p
Males 4.56 0.70 252 p < .001
Females 4.22 0.84 173
Note: All scales standardized with 1 = Lowest (least
important); 5 = Highest (very important)
958 Journal of Dental Education ■ Volume 66, No. 8
motives (MONEY) for pursuing a career in dentistry.
This is contrary to some of the previous research cited
above which suggested that financial motives were
more important among male than among female den-
tal students. In contrast to some gender stereotypes,
and congruent with the individual item analysis, the
perceived flexibility of a dental career seems to be
of equal importance to both males and females, as
demonstrated by the nearly equal means on that scale.
Statistically significant gender differences
emerged for the BUSINESS scale and the PEOPLE
scale. Female first-year dental students rate BUSI-
NESS issues as a less important motive for attend-
ing dental school (4.22) than do males (4.56). Gen-
der differences emerge on the PEOPLE scale as well.
Females, on the average, rate caring or helping mo-
tives more highly than do males. While the differ-
ences are not large, the data suggest that female first-
year dental students have a somewhat different set of
priorities than their male counterparts.
The last analysis conducted was a regression
analysis whereby the four motive scales: MONEY,
PEOPLE, FLEXIBILITY, and BUSINESS were re-
gressed on a series of demographic predictor variables.
The purpose of the regression analysis was to assess
the impact of gender on motives for attending dental
school, after controlling for other variables. The de-
mographic variables were gender, race (white vs. non-
white/Hispanic), mother and father’s education (col-
lege vs. less than college education), marital status
(married vs. not), children (have children vs. no chil-
dren), and a volunteerism scale constructed from the
volunteer items on the questionnaire.
The results, presented in Table 5, indicate that
the combined effect of these variables on the motive
scales were modest. The amount of explained vari-
) ranged from .01 (for the FLEXIBILITY scale)
to .057 (PEOPLE and BUSINESS). However, even
after the effects of other variables were controlled, the
effects of gender mirrored that found in the bivariate
relationships. Female dental students are predicted to
have lower scores than males on the BUSINESS scale
and higher scores on the PEOPLE scale. The persis-
tence of a robust gender effect suggests that it is a
substantive effect, rather than a statistical artifact.
Summary and Discussion
This is the first study to systematically exam-
ine gender differences in motives for attending den-
Table 5. Regression analysis: scale scores regressed on demographic variables
Scale: MONEY PEOPLE BUSINESS FLEXIBILITY
Unstandardized Regression Coefficients B B B B
(Constant) 3.938 4.485 4.605 4.331
(0.121) (0.090) (.122) (0.110)
SEX -0.158 0.165* -0.394* 0.018
(0.084) (0.062) (0.084) (0.076)
RACE 0.329* 0.039 0.039 0.066
(0.090) (0.067) (0.090) (0.081)
FATHER’S EDUCATION 0.082 -0.023 -0.063 0.211
(0.124) (0.092) (0.124) (0.112)
MOTHER’S EDUCATION 0.134 -0.046 0.111 -0.004
(0.105) (0.078) (0.105) (0.095)
FREQ. OF VOLUNTEERISM -0.020 0.006 -0.011 -0.028*
(0.012) (0.009) (0.012) (0.011)
MARITAL STATUS -0.012 0.054 0.147 0.073
(0.111) (0.082) (0.112) (0.100)
CHILDREN -0.174 -0.319* -0.182 -0.131
(0.174) (0.129) (0.175) (0.158)
F 2.935 2.559 3.958 1.668
p 0.005 0.014 0.000 0.116
0.038 0.057 0.057 0.013
n 344 344 344 344
* p <.05 ( ) = STANDARD ERROR OF REGRESSION COEFFICIENT
SEX: 1= FEMALE; 0=MALE; RACE: 1=NONWHITE OR HISPANIC; 0=WHITE
EDUCATION: 1=COLLEGE EDUCATED; 0=NOT
MARITAL STATUS: 1=MARRIED; 0=NOT
CHILDREN: 1=YES; 0=NO
August 2002 ■ Journal of Dental Education 959
tal school using a multi-institution U.S. sample. Ad-
ditionally, it is the first study of dental student moti-
vation to attempt to examine motives as set of fac-
tors, rather than as individual items.
Our analysis revealed that dental students’
motives for pursuing dentistry as a career are orga-
nized around four principle themes or factors. Two
of these factors, PEOPLE and MONEY, seem to be
sets of motives that are applicable to many profes-
sions, both in and outside the sphere of health care.
Given the importance attached to these motives by
dental students, it is not surprising that about two-
thirds of both male and female students in our sample
considered “physician” as an alternative career to
dentistry. Females were somewhat more likely than
males to consider other helping professions, albeit
such as education/teaching
(22 percent of female dental students identified this
as an alternative career choice, compared to 17 per-
cent of males) and nursing (5 percent of females com-
pared to 1 percent of males).
Why then did these students choose dentistry?
Perhaps the answer lies in the other two motive fac-
tors that were identified. The FLEXIBILITY and
BUSINESS factors are centered around practice char-
acteristics that, while not unique to dentistry, distin-
guish dentistry from many other professions, both in
and outside the health care industry. Both male and
female students rated the perceived flexibility of den-
tists’ work time as equally important: the ability to
set one’s schedule, the ability to keep regular hours,
the ability to have time for family. Evidence about
the relative importance of this issue to currently prac-
ticing male and female dentists is mixed. In a 1995
survey commissioned by the ADA,
quarters of U.S. dentists surveyed, regardless of gen-
der, rated the “Importance of Balancing Work and
Family Obligations” as “Very Important.” However,
among dentists with children under age twenty-one
in the survey, 32 percent of males vs. 79 percent of
female dentists rated childcare as “Very Important.”
Twenty-eight percent of female, compared to 19 per-
cent of male, dentists rate “Taking time off to raise
children” as “Very Important.” Students of both gen-
ders in the present study appear to place a premium
on family time and apparently feel that dentistry will
provide the flexibility that will allow them to equita-
bly balance work and family life. When contrasted
with past research and historical gender stereotypes
suggesting that family time may be more important
for women than for men, these results suggest an
evolutionary process of shifting attitudes about the
family among contemporary dental students.
The BUSINESS factor—being one’s own boss,
being self-employed—is also relatively specific to
the profession of dentistry. According to the 1995
75 percent of male dentists and 53
percent of female dentists are in “sole proprietor”
practices. By comparison, among all U.S. physicians
in 1997, 60 percent are in office-based practices, and
of those, only 28 percent are in solo practice.
the “practice model” for dentists, and the practice
model that most students were likely to witness dur-
ing dental visits prior to dental school, is quite dif-
ferent from that of physicians. Both males’ and fe-
males’ mean rating on this factor was above 4.0,
indicating that the dental practice model was quite
important for all students. However, males’ mean
rating was significantly greater than females’. The
relative importance of the business factor for males
and females is reflected in related data as well. A
national survey indicated that, among the 1996 col-
lege freshmen from which this class of dental stu-
dents was drawn, 34 percent of women indicated that
being successful in one’s own business was a very
important or “essential” life objective, compared to
46 percent of men.
In our own data, male dental
students were somewhat more likely (27 percent) than
female dental students (13 percent) to have consid-
ered business as an alternative career before they
decided on dental school.
This factor may be less important for females
than for males because of a dearth of role models for
female students. Extrapolating from the ADA data,
only about 7 percent of all U.S. dentists are female,
sole proprietors. Only about 6 percent of the women
in the U.S. labor force are self-employed in small
businesses, compared to 9 percent of men.
tionally, the average age of our first-year respondents
is twenty-four years, which means that they will be
at least twenty-eight years old upon graduation from
dental school. Female students, who may be antici-
pating child-bearing and child-rearing at some point
soon after graduation, may view small business own-
ership as incompatible with those family activities.
It is the typical practice patterns of dentistry
that give the profession the flexibility most dental
students seem to value. The structure of the dental
profession may provide unique opportunities for both
women and men to exercise a high degree of au-
tonomy and flexibility and, at the same time, enjoy
the status awards associated with being a health care
960 Journal of Dental Education ■ Volume 66, No. 8
provider and small business owner. Furthermore,
has suggested that: “The private practice
of dentistry may provide an ideal laboratory for ex-
amining how women can integrate family and ca-
reer. As the owner of one’s practice, a woman can set
the rules to meet her needs.”
The research reported here may aid recruiters
in crafting effective messages for attracting students
to the dental profession, at a time when the demands
for oral health care in the United States are increas-
ing and the supply of dental health care profession-
als may be declining.
Recruiters should not ig-
nore the potential benefits of the dental profession
for finding an equitable balance in work and family
life when talking with male as well as female dental
school candidates. By themselves, however, these
motives may be insufficient to attract students to
dentistry, as opposed to other health care professions,
such as medicine. Other motives—related to busi-
ness ownership and helping behavior—also play
important but different roles in male and female stu-
dents’ decision to attend dental school. In addition
to the personal satisfaction dentists receive by pro-
viding for the oral health needs of their patients, re-
cruiters may also wish to emphasize, to both male
and female dental school candidates, the benefits of
being a dental professional who is also an indepen-
dent, self-employed health care provider.
We would like to express our appreciation to
the institutions that took the time to administer the
survey to their students. Appreciation is also ex-
pressed to the anonymous reviewers, to W. Thomas
Fields, D.D.S., M.P.H., Professor, Department of
Pediatric Dentistry and Community Oral Health,
Wisdom F. Coleman, D.D.S., Associate Dean for
Admissions, University of Tennessee College of
Dentistry, and Professor Caren M. Barnes, B.S., M.S.,
University of Nebraska Medical Center College of
Dentistry for their helpful comments.
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