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Inside Dental Technology
June 2023
Volume 14, Issue 6

Balancing the Scales

Triumphs, opportunities, and inspirations for the future of women in the dental laboratory

Hannah Harless

When Jessica Love, CDT, owner of Capture Dental Arts, opened her laboratory 14 years ago, she found it to be a rude awakening.

"When I first met with potential clients and presented my work and my laboratory's information, one dentist literally said, to my face, ‘You're just a little girl; what do you know?'" Love says. "I was surprised to find that some men still thought this way and considered women inferior to men. I had to work twice as hard to prove that I had an education and skill, but at the same time, it gave fuel to my fire. Challenge accepted! I was determined to show them what I knew and my level of artistry."

And show them she did. At meetings and teaching engagements, Love shared both her knowledge and her passion for dental technology, and she slowly saw that determination get through to the doubters.

"It's wonderful to watch their demeanor change. Eventually, arms that were crossed start to relax to the side, and by the end of the meeting, I was getting hugs from them," Love says.

The dental industry as a whole has opened up to women over the years, despite having been primarily the domain of men for most of its modern history. Formal education requirements effectively barred American women from the profession until Lucy Hobbs Taylor became the first woman to graduate with a dental degree in 1866.1 Since then, women have slowly but surely tipped the scales toward balance in the dental office, boasting a full 50.6% of dental school graduates in 2019. In 2020, 34.5% of practicing dentists were women, with that number expected to continue climbing based on graduation numbers.2

And women in the dental laboratory are thriving as well. While it is more difficult to make projections due to the difference in formal education requirements, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2022 that 43.3% of dental, ophthalmic, and medical appliance technicians were women.3

A Changing Landscape

The road to a balanced workforce in the dental laboratory industry hasn't always been smooth. While some facets of dentistry attracted women early on, the laboratory wasn't one of them until more recent years.

Jillian Swafford, owner of Oaks Dental Designs and co-founder of Ladies of the Mill, started out working chairside and then moved into management and financial coordinating before starting her own laboratory. "When I attended my first summit as a laboratory technician, I realized the difference in the two sides of the dental industry," says Swafford. "When you go to a summit or course in general dentistry, you are surrounded by women. Assistants, hygienists, administration, office managers—there are just women everywhere. But it wasn't the same for the laboratory side. I took a selfie in the registration line, and I was the only woman in the room."

Daniele Bonafiglia Wirth, President and CEO of BonaDent Dental Laboratories, says the industry has evolved significantly over the past 25 years. "One of my first memories of becoming involved in the industry was shortly after college. I had just entered the family business, and my father invited me to attend a trade show with him," Bonafiglia Wirth says. "We were sitting at the booth, and I was the only woman, surrounded by a group of men. One of them made a crude joke and the whole group exploded in laughter. I remember thinking, ‘What have I gotten myself into?' It was a very male-oriented atmosphere at that time. However, it has been exciting to see more and more female faces at trade shows, in meetings, and in leadership roles."

Others agree that progress is being made throughout the industry. "In the beginning, I suppose I somewhat felt that I was in a man's world," says Anita Cranford, CDT, co-owner of Identical Dental Laboratory, Inc. "We would go to the Chicago dental meetings and people would be surprised we owned our own laboratory. But things have changed so much over the years." Cranford's co-owner and twin sister, Elise Holasek, CDT, agrees: "You used to see so many men in laboratories and not as many women, but now things are shifting and balancing out."

Dory Sartoris, owner of DCS Dental Lab, calls it "a very women-supportive industry" in recent years. "When I started just 10 years ago," Sartoris says, "it felt male dominated, but I've met so many more women over the years. There are still a lot of men, but the women are not too far behind."

Welcoming Mothers to the Laboratory

Several factors have combined over the years to make the dental laboratory both more attractive and more welcoming to women in the workforce. As women continue to permeate the employment market, their specific needs have become more prominent. Flexible scheduling has become a major topic of conversation, especially in the wake of the remote work revolution. This benefit is of major concern to many female workers, particularly because successful women are still more likely to be both primary breadwinners and primary caregivers, as opposed to their male counterparts.4 In providing this benefit, dental laboratories have been ahead of the curve.

"When Elise and I got into the business, we worked for an amazing lady," Cranford says. "When we started having children, we brought our newborn babies to the laboratory with us when we came back to work. We set up cribs in the back, and we did not have to send our kids to childcare until they were almost a year old. Over the last 20 years, we have tried to run our laboratory the way she did. We have always tried to make hours flexible so that if there is an event with an employee's children, they can go to it."

This is a theme repeated over and over: Motherhood is something the laboratory industry has risen to accommodate. The flexibility of laboratory work and the ability to care for children while on the job also has led many women to open their own laboratories, often starting out of their homes.

"I am seeing a trend of women stepping out on their own," Swafford says. "They are finding that little niche markets—specializing in design services, All-on-X, or removables—are a great fit for mothers working out of their own homes."

And Swafford knows what she's talking about; after working in general dentistry for 15 years, it was her children (plus a long commute) that inspired her to open her own dental laboratory.

"Within 6 weeks of making the decision, I had acquired my first equipment, and I've never looked back. Now I have three employees, and we service dentists all over the US and Canada. It's been a wild ride," Swafford says.

In the same vein, Love opened her laboratory when she had three children at home, the youngest of whom was only 7 months old. "The whole reason I opened the business was that daycare was incredibly expensive for three kids. I love being a mother, and I wanted to be there for my kids, but I also needed to provide for them. I do feel dental technology can be a great outlet for working mothers," Love says. "In my laboratory, I'm happy to hire mothers, allowing them to work during the school hours so that they can drop off and pick up their children. We both benefit; I'm able to work with such talented mothers, and they have the flexibility to raise and care for their children while earning an income."

The Journey to Leadership

In 1995—as far back as the Bureau of Labor Statistics' online records go—women were already at 41.9% of dental, ophthalmic, and medical appliance technicians.5 However, those promising numbers don't show the whole picture. As of 2022, only 25% of US laboratory owners and managers are women, according to the National Association of Dental Laboratories (NADL)—and that is up from only 15% in 2005. However, there are women working hard to change that number. In addition to those already mentioned in this article, Laura Kelly is CEO of MicroDental Laboratories and Modern Dental North America, Stephenie Goddard is CEO of Glidewell, and Rita Acquafredda has provided leadership to the industry from her role as President, Global Dental Lab and Prosthetic Solutions, at Zahn Dental.

Kelly was the first woman and the first laboratory technician to become president of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry (AACD). When she first decided to run for the position, part of her strategy included speaking with every one of the past AACD presidents to hear firsthand what they had faced during their term, and to listen, learn, and share ideas.

"These were leaders I had admired," Kelly says. "They happened to all be men, but honestly, that was irrelevant; they loved the Academy, and so did I. I knew we had a common interest in serving the Academy; however, it was the first time I had reached out and asked for advice and guidance from this esteemed group. By reaching out, not only did I learn something valuable from every single call, but I was able to connect and find mentors who supported me along my leadership journey and throughout my career." The more women ascend to positions of leadership, the more benefit for the industry as a whole. "I'm excited to see more women in the dental industry, but even more excited for everyone to realize what a beautiful balance there can be between men and women," Love says. "We don't need to compete with each other; we actually complement each other. Women do not need to wear a man's shoes. They bring their own strengths: heart, passion, artistry, creativity, and more. Besides, women look better in high heels!"

Women are also making strides in visibility through speaking engagements and trade show attendance. Where once some may have found themselves the only woman in the room, there are now speakers, panelists, and attendees. The first Women in Dental Technology event, hosted by IDT co-founders Valerie Berger and Pam Johnson in conjunction with the Chicago Dental Society's Midwinter Meeting, started with 25 attendees in 2013. That number grew to 120 in 2016 before the event ultimately expanded to include clinical attendees and was rebranded to WID Rise. This year's event was shared by 176 attendees.

Still, there is room for improvement. "Nearly half of the employees in the laboratory space are women, but we are finding that the same ratio does not show up to events. A lot of that involves childcare responsibilities. Sometimes we decide for ourselves that it is harder for us to break away, and that we can't be the ones to go away to these events," Swafford says. Her advice to women: Don't say "no" right away if asked to attend or speak at an event. In her experience, pausing for a moment and seeing if there is a way to make the commitment in time or travel often opens doors that would otherwise stay closed.

Swafford is doing her part to encourage other women speakers with an annual Speakers Retreat designed to build speaking skills and confidence. She is also the co-founder of Ladies of the Mill, a private Facebook group for women that provides a safe learning space.

"It is a place we go to ask questions, post our cases, and look for feedback," Swafford says. "We have even had people get hired through the group, which is fantastic." The group also highlights female speakers at meetings or in webinars, doing its part to support the visibility of expert women.

Companies are also beginning to see the benefits of including women in their speaking roster.

"Some companies are working hard to get women on the stage and to bring women into the public eye," Love says. "I believe the focus should be on finding talent and bringing both men and women to the podium to share perspectives both experienced and fresh. Not all companies are there yet, but I do see a shift."

Everything seems to be moving in the right direction, but there is one more factor that continues to hold women back from positions they would otherwise be extremely qualified for: confidence.

"One of the things that I feel like we struggle with the most is our own confidence," Swafford says. "Remember that failure is not a destination. It is just a stop along the way."

Love agrees: "That is one of the challenges women face; it is rare we meet women that are 100% confident in themselves. Sometimes those insecurities play into our roles at work and in our personal lives. Women can be so hard on themselves! If women build their knowledge base first, it builds their skill level, which then builds confidence. That confidence can then lead them forward in their career, as well as carrying over into their personal lives."

Bonafiglia Wirth echoes those sentiments as well. "Listen to your voice and be your own best champion," she says. "Don't be afraid and don't let self-doubt get in your way. Believe in yourself, believe in your goals, listen to the voice inside of you that is saying to go toward your goal, and run toward it."

As increasing numbers of women embrace that approach, their impact on the industry will only continue to expand. "Women are strong," Sartoris says, "and we need to power through and not let stigmas hold us back from our potential."


1. Dental history. American Dental Association. Accessed May 9, 2023.

2. HPI: Women make up growing percentage of dental workforce. American Dental Association. Accessed May 9, 2023.

3. Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2022. Accessed May 9, 2023.

4. Furlong A. Tipping the balance. Inside Dental Technology. May 1, 2014. Accessed May 9, 2023.

5. Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and Hispanic origin. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 1995. Accessed May 9, 2023.

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