Are “all women” practices actually different?

Ten women.

One practice.

Coming together for a common purpose. Serving patients better than anyone ever before. I was envisioning a Wonder Woman kind of thing. A mythical office of empowered women so in sync with each other that they intuitively know what everyone needs.  Snark, gossip, laziness, bad attitudes, and procrastination would not stand a chance.

We are women. We are better. 

I set out to make this happen – to create the perfect all-female team.  Our patients would be so well served that they would never leave. Insurance wouldn’t affect us. The hours would be irrelevant. None of the usual things would matter…not here. That’s how good it was going to be. I hired consultants. I hired coaches. We ordered matching uniforms. We held meetings to discuss what we each person needed to do their jobs better. Games were played. Role-playing happened. DISC assessments were taken. The office came to life…and it was good.

But after a few years I began to wonder, what happened to my mythical dental island where women reign supreme? What differentiates my all-female practice from one with a man at the helm?  Anything?

For one thing, tears. Tears are a kind of team member. When I ask someone to correct a behavior, tears come to the meeting too. Tears also pop up on occasion when I compliment a co-worker. Tears can steal the limelight – they’re a real show stopper. Tears can make a debut at morning huddles, when we are discussing who needs what that day. All of the consultants who helped shape us have met tears. Tears have been with me all 23 years, and I don’t see them leaving anytime soon. 

Do men get to experience this? I don’t know. But tears are a part of life in a female office. They don’t visit daily. Or even weekly. But believe it or not, they have actually been helpful. I believe this wet intruder has acted as a kind of bond.

Our team knows each other. We care for each other. We allow ourselves to be vulnerable with each other. And even our patients bring tears to their visits on occasion as they tell us about their lives. And believe me, some people’s lives are very complicated.

Another thing that feels different in the “all women” office is money. Of course money is present in our office, but is money it different in an all women office?  I say yes.  Over the years I’ve had patients imply that money must not be as important in my office because my husband works. He’s a lawyer. The implication is clear – maybe money isn’t as important here.  Her job must be a hobby, she’ll be ok if I don’t pay, they sometimes seem to think. I’ve even experienced this with banks and supply companies. They seem to think that maybe this dental office thing will pass. I’ll have a baby, sell my practice and get on with my life. But my employees need to be paid. And my bills don’t care who is running the office. 

Next let’s talk about understanding in the “all women” office.  As a woman I’m supposed to be understanding. So, I’ll hear “I’m having a bad day,” “I need a vacation,” “I am too busy,” “I just thought you should know,” or “I have to be the one who stays home.”  My gender seems to make my employees assume that they have certain leeways with me because I’m a woman…so I’ll understand.

And I do understand.

But understanding is not the same as accepting.  Talking about this in a small, all female office is challenging. We know each other on a personal level.  I know their families.  Where they go on vacation.  What’s important to them. How they feel. We communicate with each other, and we love our chats. The water is muddy.  Accountability can be misunderstood, or just not appreciated.  Would they expect a male leader to “just understand” and let it go?  I don’t know. 

Finally, there is Gossip and Snark. This poorly behaved duo is ever present…invisible employees that like to make their presence known through the team’s attitude and behavior. Always waiting for the perfect time to show up and sabotage the day. I have fired Gossip and Snark many times.  But they always find a way back. They are sneaky. Sometimes they disguise themselves as “interest”…but we all what we’re really talking about…gossip. Sometimes they look like “venting”…but I’m no rookie, I see you “venting” for what you are, complaining. Gossip and Snark are attitude killing, de-motivating team destroyers. If a man was at the helm, would it be any different? I asked around, and the overwhelming answer is that they would simply ignore it. So is that the problem? As a woman, should I look the other way more often? Do the men have it right with blissful ignorance? I don’t know.

Are expectations of a male leader different? At one point, I hired a male dentist. He was the very first male my office has ever had. Things were different, just not in the way I expected. He missed out meeting tears. He knows the team, but not on the same personal level. They like him a lot. He is friendly. But I have never witnessed deep personal conversation. He missed many of the money comments, but not all. He is blissfully ignorant of Gossip and Snark, but we met an entirely new team member: Caretaker! I didn’t even know Caretaker worked for me in this regard. My team embraced him almost as a child. They did all sorts of things for him that I had never experienced.  They cleaned up after him. Coffee cup in the sink? No problem, we’ll get it. Leave stuff lying around? That’s ok, we’ll pick it up for you. Whatever he needs, it’s done.

I found that my team views me more like an equal. A peer. As a man, he is different. I’m not saying the same issues were not present, they just were not talked about. My office may not have turned out to be a perfect island of Amazon superheroes, but that’s not all bad – Wonder Woman isn’t known to be a particularly great dentist.  As it is, I get to work in a beautiful office with highly skilled, caring, hardworking people. We are different from an office led by a man, no doubt. We are a team of people who care about each other, who care about our patients, and we truly want each other to succeed not just professionally, but also personally.  And if that comes with a dose of emotion and other female attributes from time to time, that’s ok – we are from Venus after all.

Dr. Melissa Zettler graduated from the University of Minnesota Dental School in 1995, and completed a general practice residency at the Minneapolis Veterans Hospital. She earned her FAGD in 2010, her fellowship in the ICOI in 2015, and her PADI Open Water Diver in 2008. Dr. Zettler loves learning, and is known to use good continuing education as a great opportunity to get away (Please don’t tell her husband or two teenage daughters, but feel free to join her for some implant training in Brazil in 2019!).