The Cusp Collective

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Dr Tiffany Chen established The Cusp Collective hoping to draw attention to the issue of gender roles in dentistry. Photo by Glenn Hunt

With women making up over half the Australian dental workforce, Dr Tiffany Chen is exploring what that gender shift means through her women’s empowerment program, The Cusp Collective. By John Burfitt

As a little girl growing up in New Zealand, Dr Tiffany Chen spent many days of her early childhood with her father Song, an oral maxillofacial surgeon, in his dental clinic, sitting behind the surgical chairs busy with her story books as he attended to patients.

“I just became so used to that environment—it was all so familiar to me,” she says. “I also recall my dad had such an easy rapport with patients, so the clinic seemed like a place where people would drop by for a catch-up chat and get their teeth done at the same time. My impression was that dentistry was all quite relaxed and homey.”

The Chen family had emigrated from Taiwan to New Zealand in 1996. After completing school in Auckland, Dr Chen moved to Queensland in 2008 to study dentistry, first at the University of Queensland and later at Griffith University, graduating in 2012 with a Bachelor of Dental Science. She then worked for a decade as a practitioner across south-eastern Queensland and northern NSW.

Dr Chen admits that another lingering impression from her childhood she has is the way her father would speak about her while at work. “Dad was always telling me I could be whatever I wanted, and would often tell his patients, ‘Tiffany is going to be prime minister of New Zealand one day,’” she recalls. “As Helen Clark was PM at that time, that didn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility. 

“It was in the years after graduating, however, as I began to move through various roles in dentistry that I began to wonder what women could really achieve in dentistry. 

“And while there have been big changes in the gender make-up of the profession in recent years, with official figures showing 55 per cent of dentists in Australia are now women, I still often wonder how gender roles really play out in the workplace.”

It’s an issue Dr Chen put into the spotlight with the establishment of The Cusp Collective in 2023, which had its first conference in May on the Gold Coast. The next conference will be in Melbourne next year. 

Dr Chen established The Cusp Collective to create empowering community connections for women working in all aspects of dentistry. 

Dad was always telling me I could be whatever I wanted, and would often tell his patients, ‘Tiffany is going to be prime minister of New Zealand one day. As Helen Clark was PM at that time, that didn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility.

Dr Tiffany Chen, founder, The Cusp Collective

“The point of the collective is to put greater focus on what we can improve, and for women to discuss where we’re going within the profession as there are many nuances in everyday encounters that are specific to women,” she says. “And that’s not something I’ve seen talked about so widely, but I think it needs to be addressed.”

Top of Dr Chen’s agenda is to explore what she calls the ‘authority gap’ that exists in some workplaces—not just by fellow staff but also by some patients. “Very often, people value the opinions of men far more than when a woman says the same thing. We all hear about that happening, but we don’t know what the solutions are in handling it.”

She cites experiences such as welcoming a new patient into the surgical room, only to be met with the response, ‘You must be the assistant; when’s the doctor coming in?’ Or when a patient exclaims, ‘You don’t look strong enough to do an extraction. Is there a male dentist I can see instead?’

Dr Chen says other female practitioners she’s spoken to have reported similar experiences. “They are little micro aggressions, and most women think it is the norm and what we must live with. But it does have an impact and contributes to taking a toll on our mental health and confidence, and ultimately, to burnout.

“Just hearing other women talk about such issues and their strategies for handling them, as well as the juggling act of providing the best care for patients while managing a business, additional study and having a family, is so important. There’s a lot of value in sharing wisdom to help each other out.”

Her focus on the experience of gender came about during an intensely busy period a few years ago. In 2020, Dr Chen commenced a Master of Science in Medicine (Pain Management) with a special focus on orofacial pain management, at the University of Sydney, and just as she was completing it in 2022, she embarked on further postgraduate studies at Griffith University to become a periodontist. At the time, she was also eight months pregnant. 

“I was a little lost for a couple of years and when I came back to Australia after travelling, I knew I needed more purpose in my career as just clocking in and out as an associate dentist was not challenging enough. I wanted to be really good in one area, but I didn’t know what that looked like. 

“There’s so much research being done in periodontics right now, and as I looked into it more, I realised this was the next step I had been looking for all along,” she says. “It combines all parts of the industry that I enjoy.” She is due to complete the program by year’s end. 

She confesses starting the periodontist postgraduate program while settling into her new role as mum to her baby son took a toll. It also made her look at the Australian dental landscape from a different perspective. 

“While studying at the same time as learning to cope with a three-month-old baby, I was struggling,” she admits. “It was a really stressful time trying to juggle everything, and I had the support of my husband Mark throughout this time.

I’m focused on trying to make concrete changes for practitioners to put into action in the workplace, so they can feel the changes in their daily life. What I really want is for everyone to be able to have the best experience possible in dentistry and for all of us to thrive.

Dr Tiffany Chen, founder, The Cusp Collective

“I knew there must be other women in dentistry who’d been through this experience, but I didn’t know where to find these women who could offer wisdom and guidance on how to work through all of this. 

“As supportive as Mark was, it’s different with a woman who knows exactly how you feel, and not just in terms of emotional health but also physical health. That’s when I began thinking about how we could work better as a dental community, and that eventually led to the creation of The Cusp Collective.”

The times, Dr Chen stresses, are changing. As well as the 55 per cent of dentists currently working in Australia being female, there have also been estimates that almost 64 per cent of new students coming through the ranks are female.

But it’s on the executive level where she believes more women are needed in leadership positions, noting that of the current federal and state ADA presidents, there’s only one female—Tasmania’s Dr Fiona Tann. 

“They are all good people, but the reality is the ones in power who can really do something about helping make a shift are all men, so we need to educate them on how to advocate for women to achieve gender equality,” she says.

While she advocates for change at senior leadership levels, Dr Chen says she’s not ready just yet to become involved at a representative board level. It’s through The Cusp Collective that she hopes to make an impact right now.

“I’m focused on trying to make concrete changes for practitioners to put into action in the workplace, so they can feel the changes in their daily life,” she says. “What I really want is for everyone to be able to have the best experience possible in dentistry and for all of us to thrive. 

“Across society, there’s a definite generational shift taking place and people seem to be more open to being inclusive and embracing diversity, so things are moving in the right direction. There’s still a lot of work to do, but I think we’re making our way.” 

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