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International Women's Day 2021: My Journey as a Female Dentist

On International Women’s Day 2021, I reflect on my journey as a professional female, in particular, as a professional female dentist. When I graduated from New York University College of Dentistry in 1994, female students were in the minority. We accounted for only around 35% of the graduating class. There was a considerable amount of sexism in those days, defined by comments like “you are too pretty to be a dentist, what are you going to do when you get pregnant, you are only here to fill quotas...”


It was a different time, but the things that were said were largely ignored by the women striving to achieve their goals. Thankfully the faculty and staff at NYU were welcoming, inclusive, and focused on helping us graduate. When confronted with sexist comments we kept our head down and focused on our work, striving to create our own place in this profession where we could thrive and allow others to follow. Today, I am happy to say that dental school classes are at least 50% female, and I know that my daughter’s generation is now in a much-improved position than generations past.


After graduation, I went to work in the Canadian Arctic. Most of my patients were members of the Inuit population, and they flocked to me. In the Inuit culture, women are traditionally the “healers,” so being treated by a female dentist was something that they were comfortable with and welcomed wholeheartedly. I worked hard and bonded with my patients. I came back from that experience a far superior clinician than when I went into it and had the professional experience of a lifetime.

Setting up my first private practice in Southern Maryland over 25 years ago provided many challenges, yet my former partner Dr. Lasher was my champion. Often in the first few years of practicing when I would diagnose and prescribe treatment, patients would often call up my partner to “check” to see if what I was suggesting was correct. It often felt like he was my “Dad” in this scenario rather than my partner. Dr. Lasher would assure them that I was an excellent clinician, and he had the “utmost confidence in my ability.” The frequency eventually lessened after I had “proven” my competence. This was perhaps the hardest and most frustrating thing about entering a male-dominated profession. The second-guessing never ceased to sting and wound my pride, but I soldiered on.

I was extremely fortunate in my lifetime to find enlightened men and women champions to cheer me on my journey and I was able in my capacity as a co-owner of a large group practice to hire and mentor other female dentists. Along the way, we had the pleasure of hiring two female orthodontists and two female associates.

In this new chapter of my life, I have been fortunate to meet Dr. Rizkalla, a wonderful, enlightened colleague who did not at all consider my gender but instead the quality of my work during our discussions about taking over his practice. There is still much to do by women and men for women, however, I know that the opportunities for my daughter, who is an upcoming freshman at Cornell Engineering, will be even greater, and I hope limitless!

Karen Harriman, DDS with Daughter

Happy International Women's Day to all my female patients and dental colleagues. Thank you for your ongoing support.

International Women's Day 2021

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