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 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.