In conversation with trailblazing women in dentistry: past and future presidents of FDI World Dental Federation
FDI World Dental Federation was founded in 1900. In its over 120 years of existence, only four women have been elected president (one is currently serving her term of president-elect) of the organization. After 105 years without a woman at the helm of the organization, FDI has elected four women to lead the organization, each for a two-year mandate, since 2005. We were delighted to speak to each of them to hear more their challenges, successes, and aspirations for the future.
Dr Michèle Aerden, the first woman to be elected president of FDI, 2005 – 2007
As the first woman to be elected president of FDI World Dental Federation, what kinds of challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?
Becoming FDI President was never a goal or a dream for me, but rather a long road that led me to this position.
For close to 20 years, I served FDI on different committees, working groups, and task teams; in each position, I delivered results. I was asked to run for Council and later for President-elect.
I lost the elections the first time I ran for the position of President-elect, as my competitor was from the Asia Pacific Region and the General Assembly was in Kuala Lumpur one week after 9/11. Many delegates from other regions did not show up that year.
Two years later in Sydney, I applied again but did not expect to win, as my competitor was also from Europe. My only reason to apply was, if a woman does not get elected twice, the next woman will have a better chance. Surprisingly, I won!
From that moment on, my real challenge was to achieve these three goals that I defined for myself as president: medical positioning of our profession, meaning that there can be no general health without oral health; excellence in the organization of FDI; and ethics, the cornerstone of our credibility as a federation and mine as a professional.
What advice do you have for other female leaders?
Go for it! Being 50% of the population, women must be in leading positions where decisions for their future are being taken.
Women have the necessary skills to lead and need more self-confidence to go for it. Prepare your ship before sailing! During my two-year term as president-elect, I asked competent people that I knew well to run for Council or the Committees. As a result, I had the most wonderful team of Councillors and Committee members!
Make sure you maintain your prerogatives: I initially established the Women Dentists Working Group, and as president-elect, I asked Council to change it to a Women Dentists Worldwide Section instead. To cancel a Working Group is easy but cancelling an FDI Section needs to go through the General Assembly!
Once you are in a position of leadership, give priority to competence, not to gender. There are enough highly competent women who deserve to be selected organically! Very often, I was asked: "As the first woman to be president of FDI, what will you do for women?” My answer was always: “As president I have no gender, I am just ‘the’ president, for all!”
Dr Tin Chun Wong, FDI President 2013 – 2015
What do you think are the biggest challenges ahead for the next generation of female leaders?
I think it is important to find the right balance between work (dentistry with the pursuit of excellence) and life (self, family, and community), commonly known as work/life balance. We often have to make extremely difficult choices between the two.
What is the best decision you have made in regard to your career in leadership and dentistry?
The best decision I made was to choose healthcare, i.e., dentistry as a career and to give back to the community through my professional and public service.
Dr Kathryn Kell, FDI President 2017 – 2019
What are some assumptions and biases that you have experienced as a female leader?
Early in my career, it was expected that women would want to be paediatric dentists because we were supposedly “good” with children. I never wanted to be a paediatric dentist as I didn’t like the idea of hurting children. Later in my career as a general dentist, I was actually able to develop some techniques to work with children that helped.
At dental school, my roommate and I were the first women at the university to live in a dental fraternity. That was really an experience! The guys did a lot to test us, but in the end it was a great experience and one I will always remember. Some of these experiences helped me understand how to work with both men and women and enhanced my ability to work with all patients.
What’s the greatest career risk you have ever taken?
One of the biggest career risks was first applying for dental school. That turned out to be the best decision of my life.
I’ve had wonderful experiences as a dentist with patients, staff, and great experiences meeting dentists at conferences locally, nationally and internationally. I’ve had a very rich life because of dentistry and feel so blessed that I became a dentist. What a wonderful career—I would recommend it to anyone.
Prof. Ihsane Ben Yahya, FDI President-elect 2019 –2021, FDI President 2021 – 2023
You take up your mandate as president of FDI World Dental Federation in September this year. What aspect of your presidency are you most energized about?
First, I would like to pay tribute to all FDI members who have honoured me with their trust. I am both excited and moved to be able, together with all the member associations and FDI partners, to seize the opportunity to fulfil my dearest wish: to serve the community of dentists of the world and through them, their populations for a better oral health and general well-being.
I am honoured as a Moroccan and an African to carry the global voice of dentistry. I will take my first steps by capitalizing on what has been achieved, to provide future generations with a healthy world, to reduce days of absenteeism from school or work due to pain or infection, and to enable practitioners to reach levels of expertise to meet the care and prevention needs of the populations they serve.
I am also inspired by what we have achieved in terms of the World Health Organization's recognition of the importance of oral health within general health, and I will continue to advocate for this truth to be recognized at every level.
What leadership lessons have you learned over the course of your career?
I will confess to you that my modest professional experience, as a teacher concerned with the well-being of her students and their professional future, and as an administrator of hospital structures placing the health of citizens at the heart of my concerns, has taught me tolerance, a sense of listening to all voices (including those that are discordant), openness to all debates in total transparency and respect for the rules of ethics and equity.
As an active member of oral disease prevention associations, I have learned to be inclusive, to discern difference, and to spare no effort to reduce inequalities in oral health so that the most marginalized, rural and underserved populations are not left behind.
I have learned that anything is possible when it is done with a collective good intention.
It is these values that I put at the service of our FDI, and I invite all members to join me so that, hand in hand, we can be ambassadors for our populations and, while maintaining FDI’s identity, contribute to its structure so that it can reach its objective of "leading the world to optimal oral health."