President’s Message: Women in Leadership: Shattering the Operatory Ceiling

By Terryl A. Propper, D.D.S., M.S.

PropperTerrylThe AAE Board of Directors attended the opening session at the 2015 American Dental Association meeting in Washington, D.C. ADA President Dr. Maxine Feinberg and President-Elect Dr. Carol Gomez Summerhays were insightful, dynamic, professional and poised. Watching them on stage got me thinking about dentistry and how the gender landscape, demographics and economics are changing. Along with the profession’s transformation as a result of changes in the dental marketplace, a new trend in leadership is emerging. Developing an executive team whose composition reflects its membership is of increasing importance.

It is becoming the norm to see females in positions of leadership in organized dentistry. The president and immediate past president of the ADA, president and president-elect of the AAE and president of the ABE are all female. It is apparent that, in a male-dominated field, women are coming into their own as business owners, as opinion and thought leaders, as mentors and as contenders for the most challenging leadership roles. Given the changing demographics of dental school classes, and particularly the increased enrollment of women in dental schools and in advanced specialty programs, it is not surprising that the gender revolution has impacted the AAE, ABE and ADA around the boardroom table.

The Pew Research Center: Social and Demographic Trends published a report in January 2015 that discussed women in leadership positions in corporate America. To put it bluntly, progress has been slow. Women only comprise 5% of CEOs in the nation’s Fortune 500 companies and 17% of corporate board members. As an Association, our Board, at 68% male and 32% female, is becoming closer to reflecting the demographics of current endodontic programs, where approximately 38% of students are female. Though it is an ongoing process, the AAE is working to increase diversity in our leadership, our committees and our outreach.

The gender gap, as it relates to education, earnings, political representation and executive positions, is a topic we read about in the news with increasing frequency in today’s world. In November, Canada’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, appointed a gender-equal cabinet. When asked why he felt it was important to do so, he started a social media flurry with his simple response: “Because it’s 2015.” It is time that the global community recognizes that closing this gap is imperative. The world is embracing the reality that women bring unique strengths to the table in politics, business and education. Organized dentistry needs to lead that trend in order to remain relevant – not just with women, but with a diverse cross section of our younger generation.

It takes time, experience, knowledge and respect to become an effective leader – and this is why many individuals in leadership positions are pushing their sixth decade. Our challenge as an organization is to keep new leadership in the pipeline. Doing so involves training and mentoring young endodontists to lead our Association into the next decade. It is imperative to give younger members leadership roles and increased responsibility for important undertakings now so they can build the necessary confidence and finesse to lead.

Accordingly, the AAE Board has approved the development of a conference to identify and train the next generation of leaders with an eye toward enhancing the gender and ethnic diversity of our leadership.

During my time as AAE president this year, the Board of Directors and I have focused on building camaraderie, inclusiveness, trust and consensus among the Executive Committee, Board of Directors, AAE staff and affiliated organizations, through effective communication and intuitive management.

My life experience and perspective as a woman has positively influenced my approach to the presidency, and it has become clear to me that our leadership and our Association become stronger by bringing diverse people – in gender, ethnicity, age and beliefs – together for the common good. Consequently, my focus has been on encouraging and mentoring our younger members who bring fresh perspectives, exuberant energy and aptitude for technology to the table. These are the people who will rise to replace the Baby Boomers in leadership roles as they retire.

In developing the new conference, the Board of Directors has taken an important step in building our future leadership, but we need AAE members to help in this effort. Talk to your graduate students about getting involved with the AAE or invite your colleagues to attend AAE meetings and events with you. Discuss legislative issues that affect dentistry so others can see the importance of advocating for our profession. When you see a call for nominations for individuals to serve on the AAE’s standing and special committees, take the time to send in names of those emerging leaders. It takes all of us to innovate and effect change. The future of our specialty depends on it.

From the beginning of my presidency, my mantra has been “onward and upward” with an emphasis on renewal and reinvention. My hope is that – with the help of dedicated AAE members, reflecting all aspects of our membership – we can continue to move forward and leave a legacy of innovation and dynamic leadership that will perpetuate the success of our specialty and of our Association.