LAYTON — When Dr. Jennifer Brown told friends and family she wanted to be a dentist, her mother cried.
"I felt everybody was really supportive except for my own mom. She was not supportive," Brown said during recent interview.
She said, "I just want you to be able to focus on having your family."
Brown assured her that she would have a family. But before becoming a mom of five boys, she graduated from the Creighton University School of Dentistry in 2004.
She works 14 hours a week in a high-paying profession that enables her to maximize family time and gives the boys, ages 4 to 11, valuable time with their father while she's at work one morning and one afternoon each week and two Saturdays a month.
Despite those advantages, dentistry as a career among women in Utah is far from commonplace. A new study by the Utah Medical Education Council describes Utah's dentist workforce as "overwhelmingly male."
Just over 4 percent of dentists currently practicing in Utah are women, compared with 28.9 percent nationwide, according to the newly released "Utah's Dentist Workforce 2017: A Study on the Supply and Distribution of Dentists in Utah."
Although the numbers have increased since 2012 when just 2.5 percent of the state's dentists were female, Utah also trails the nation in the percentage of women enrolled in the state's two dental schools — the University of Utah's School of Dentistry and the private, nonprofit Roseman University's College of Dental Medicine in South Jordan.
For example, the latest cohort to start dental school at the University of Utah is 20 percent female — 10 female students and 40 male students.
The university is actively working to recruit more qualified female students, said Dr. Gary Lowder, director of student admissions for the U.'s School of Dentistry.
"We're reaching out to high school students more and in the process using our current students to do that. They relate well. I'm also traveling to the surrounding states in our region and visiting the universities there to let them know who we are, what we're doing and invite their students to apply," Lowder said.
On Dec. 1, 51 percent of all offers to attend the U.'s dental school starting in 2018 were extended to women, 72 percent of them from out of state.
That doesn't mean all students offered a slot will accept because many students have multiple offers to consider. Cost and proximity to family are key considerations for many students, he said.
One of the U.'s challenges early on was that it had no proven track record. Students want to attend a school that will help them compete for advanced training.
The U.'s first dental school class graduated last spring. Among the cohort of 20 students, 13 were accepted for advanced training, some in highly competitive specialty programs, such as oral surgery and orthodontia.
"Those fears are now laid aside, and we're now trending upward in our applications," Lowder said.
Nationally, numbers of students applying for dental school dropped by 9 percent in the past year. But at the U., 700 students applied to part of next 50-student cohort, compared with 500 the previous year.
Most female applicants to the school of dentistry have been from out of state, although "this year we had 12 qualified in-state applicants," he said. By comparison, 48 qualified applicants from out of state interviewed at the U.
Lowder said recruiters are working hard to encourage qualified women in state to apply with the goal of achieving a class that is evenly divided by gender or more closely in line with the U. School of Medicine's physician training program, but cultural barriers exist.
"If we're talking about strictly Utah students, Utah residents applying, the major factor there, I believe, is our culture. For the most part, it has not been seen as an option for females in the past. We see that trend increasing, however. I think as they see other students graduate and doing well, we'll see more and more of our Utah residents applying," he said.
Nationally, nearly half — 48 percent — of all dental school graduates in 2015 were female, according to the latest Utah Medical Education Council study.
"The gender split at Roseman University over the next four graduating classes is much closer to the national average at 45.2 percent, however with a much lower rate of in-state students, it is unclear how much this will affect the Utah workforce," the study states.
It estimates that 28.6 percentage of graduates from the U.'s dental school within the next four years will be female.
The study says there has been a "major shift" to a growing number of female dentists in the workforce nationally. "The Utah workforce has yet to catch up," the study says.
The study recommends that Utah address gender imbalance in the dental workforce by:
• Increasing efforts to recruit and retain more female dentists in Utah and at the two dental schools in the state.
• Partnering with women’s organizations such as the Utah Women and Leadership Project to understand and address the causes of the lack of female dentists in the state.
• Fostering partnerships among the Area Health Education Centers, Utah State Board of Education, Utah State Board of Regents, high schools, pre-dental programs, dental programs, and nonprofit organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs and United Way to strengthen the dental education pipeline for female students.
Now that Utah has two dental schools, Brown said she believes more Utah women will strive to become dentists, even in a state where family is a high priority.
Her mother now applauds her choice to go to dental school.
"Now she's like, 'Oh, my gosh. It's just so good you went to dental school,'" Brown said.
Aside from flexibility with family and the financial benefits of being a medical professional, Brown said she relishes being a role model to her sons. She and her husband place a high priority on education and achieving goals.21 comments on this story
"It's a good example for them. We tell them, 'If you want to be successful, you have to work hard. That's what Dad and I did,'" she said.
Words are one thing, but Brown's children have been able to witness that their mom's education and gifts can make a difference in other people's lives, such as the missionary from Africa who happened to knock on their door.
He was missing one of his front teeth. "I said, 'Let me fix that for you.'"
So she did, grateful that she had the means and know-how to help a young man in need.
"For our family it's been, really, a blessing," Brown said.