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Diverse Voices In Dentistry: A Male Hygienist Shares His Story

Posted September 21, 2021

Tonya Lanthier, RDH
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Last week, I was so excited to launch SmartView, a new DentalPost feature, a long time in the making, that empowers dental hiring managers to conduct candidate screening without candidate names and photos in an effort to reduce unconscious biases in dental hiring. I am passionate about dentistry and never want to see our industry crippled again by a lack of a diverse hygiene team. Despite everything we’ve endured the last 18 months, I love the dental industry and dental hygiene and still believe it’s one of the best career choices. But, if we don’t diversify as an industry, will the next generation of dental clinicians share our passion? Can we expect to attract the next generation of caregivers if we don’t, as an industry, embrace change?

Ryan Rutar, RDH
Ryan Rutar, RDH

Celebrating Diverse Voices 

I want to celebrate the diverse voices and leaders in dentistry and elevate their voices so that we can all better understand their perspectives on how we can propel our industry forward. This week, I’m excited to share my conversation with Ryan Rutar, RDH, and owner of Pearly White Prevention who shares his experiences and thoughts on being a male hygienist, as well as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. 

Here is what he had to say…

TL: Thank you for sharing your story with us! What first inspired you to become a dental clinician and join this industry? 

RR: I had always wanted to work with teeth since I was in 7th grade. But, the closer I got to finishing my biology degree, the more I realized I didn’t want to go into restorative and wanted to see if there was anything out there that still fit my desire to take care of teeth without drilling being a factor. That’s when I read about dental hygiene and found it to be a perfect fit. I’m all about the connection with my patients and love my job and what I do! 

TL: I was also drawn to dentistry at a young age, and love that you are as passionate about dental hygiene as I am! What has your experience been as a male hygienist? What have been the challenges, perks, and surprises? 

RR: I was actually one of the last hygienists in my class to get a job! I think a lot of the dentists were worried about what a conservative population would think of a male hygienist. Surprisingly, as long as you continued to explain that you were the hygienist and not a new dentist, patients were ok with it. Some of them even liked a little change, but, of course, you have those who didn’t.

I do feel that having so few men in the profession has opened up doors for me that maybe haven’t been that way for women. I don’t know if it’s my personality that plays a part, but I’ve been heard by my dentist and have been able to make changes. I feel that I have been able to help more on the national stage than maybe someone else. The fact that I’m writing this, and people wanting to know my option has given me a little edge. Most of the time hygienists have been great about welcoming me into the fold, and I am forever grateful for that. 

TL: According to our annual Salary Survey, the dental hygiene workforce is currently 98.5% female. How do you think this impacts the industry? 

RR: It can certainly be a hindrance for our industry.  When we allow for only one side, or viewpoint to be expressed, then that industry is going to suffer a little in advancement and understanding of other cultures. It’s no different than what you see in majority male workforces, such as lawyers, doctors, professors, etc.

TL: What do you think would attract this younger generation of males, who potentially hold different attitudes around gender, to pursue a dental hygiene career? 

RR: I think the younger generation wants to feel that they have a purpose in life. So first off you have to allow them to see the passion in prevention and how it’s not just about cleaning teeth. Secondly, we have to show them that there are places to rise within the profession. You can be a hygienist, but you can also work harder, and be a hygiene manager, a consultant, a coach, a nutrition counselor, a manager for corporate hygiene, or an educator. A lot of the time they only think clinical, and I think there is more out there in our profession than what gets advertised. I try, in my company Pearly White Prevention, to create Hygiene Managers as a standard in business practice. If you have hygienists in your office, then one should be helping the dentist run the department. Dentists need help too! 

Men need to know that they can provide for their families. Sometimes they may not know the salary of a hygienist and could change their opinion on the matter.

TL: We’ve been tracking the number of male clinicians in our industry, and noticed last year in our Salary Survey that our male respondent response doubled from the previous year. Do you see a trend where more male hygienists are entering the industry? 

RR: I have seen an increase in men in the industry even when I go to the national conventions. I would usually see maybe 1 or 2 when I went to ADHA about 10 years ago, and I would get excited. This year, with Covid just low enough to have a convention, there were at least 10 there! I mean, it’s not a lot, but the fact that it’s into two digits is something to celebrate. 

TL: Experts attribute the growing number of male RNs (registered nurses) to a decrease in gender stigma and changing perceptions about the male’s role in healthcare. Do you think this is also happening in dental or is in our future? 

RR: I believe we will get there. Our trends in the dental industry usually tend to follow the nursing industry. However, I do feel dentistry is a little more on the role of who has the power. Not everyone likes the idea of male hygienists. Society has to get there, too, in order for that sigma to go away.  

TL: How do practices and DSOs benefit from more gender diversity on their teams? 

RR: Diversity will always be a good thing. To have both perspectives is like saying two heads are better than one. Anytime you can diminish a stereotype on how one specific profession is assigned one gender, the better we all will be.

There is also the aspect that sometimes society doesn’t take women as seriously as they do men. If women want to step away to have a family, then they are somehow considered weaker for it.  This is not my opinion, but is potentially part of the reason that hygiene may not have advanced as fast as other industries that are independent of their “employer.” 

TL: Anything else you want to share? 

RR: Getting rid of the stigma that men in a woman’s profession must be on the more effeminate or gay side to work there, is a stigma I would love to get rid of. Yes, I happen to be gay in this profession, but I’m actually one of the few. Most of the men are actually straight.  Even if they ended up being gay, would that be so bad? When did being gay become a requirement for working in a female-dominated profession?  All that says to me is, “Something must be different about him for going against the grain.” People go against the grain all the time, this is how change for the better occurs, and their sexuality sometimes has nothing to do with it.

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