How the ADA, the leader of a field historically dominated by men, came to be governed by women

February 24, 2015
Lauren Krzyzostaniak
Lauren Krzyzostaniak

Issue 2

The American Dental Association (ADA) is soon to make history again with its presidential elections by having two women serve as presidents of the organization for two years in a row. Dr. Maxine Feinberg is serving for the 2015 year, and president-elect Dr. Carol Gomez Summerhays is preparing to take over in 2016. Before Dr. Feinberg, only two women had served as the president of the ADA.

The American Dental Association (ADA) is soon to make history again with its presidential elections by having two women serve as presidents of the organization for two years in a row. Dr. Maxine Feinberg is serving for the 2015 year, and president-elect Dr. Carol Gomez Summerhays is preparing to take over in 2016. Before Dr. Feinberg, only two women had served as the president of the ADA.

We asked President Feinberg if she was surprised there had been so few woman presidents for the ADA or if it was expected, as dentistry had been a male-dominated field for so long. (Prior to the early 1970s, dentistry had been almost exclusively male, maintaining the lowest percentage of women dentists in the Western world.)

“I think it’s a combination,” she said. “Part of it is that the demographic has changed. I think when I graduated from dental school, my class increased the percentage of practicing women from 1.5 percent to 2 percent. Now, with 50 percent of the class being women and the diversity in the classes today, it was just a matter of time.”

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Dr. Feinberg demonstrated an optimistic outlook on women in dentistry serving in leadership positions.

“I think that soon we won’t have to discuss this anymore," she said. "I’m hoping that young women entering the profession today will be as committed as my colleagues were and will start taking more and more leadership roles in all aspects of organized dentistry.”

There have been only three women presidents of the ADA in its 156-year history, starting with Dr. Geraldine Morrow’s election in 1991 and followed by Dr. Kathleen Roth in 2005. The fact that both the president and the president-elect of the American Dental Association in 2015 are both women could signify a change happening within the organization, as well as the entire industry, as Dr. Feinberg says, but the organization also went a decade without a woman president from 2005-2015.

Of course, you can’t argue that change isn’t taking place at the top: Dr. Kathleen O’Loughlin was elected as the first woman executive director of the American Dental Association in 2009 and still serves today alongside Dr. Feinberg and Dr. Summerhays. Dr. Reneida Reyes was elected as the first woman president of the American Dental Association Foundation in 2014. Although it’s something Dr. Feinberg doesn’t consider spectacular – it could be, after all, merely a representation of the changing demographic of dental professionals as she says – some of her male colleagues might not be as unimpressed.

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“To me it’s very threatening,” said Dr. Gene Wurth, executive director of the American Dental Association Foundation, while laughing. “We have Dr. Feinberg, Dr. Reyes, Dr. Summerhays, Dr. O’Loughlin - I’m looking around going, ‘How many males are left around here?’”

Despite taking more than 130 years to elect a woman into a leadership position, the ADA proves to be more progressive than the nation in general: before we’d ever elected Barack Obama in 2008 and ended a series of white male faces on the wall of history, the ADA had already elected an Asian-American of Japanese descent, Dr. Eugene Sekiguchi (that was in 2002). Soon after President Obama took his seat in the White House, the ADA elected its first black president, Dr. Raymond Gist (that was 2009). (Check out the ADA timeline for other firsts.)

Whether it’s a symbol that represents the inevitable changes taking place in the industry or an intentional move to get more diversity in the highest ranks of the organization and its foundation, we’re seeing the effects. More women and people of color are climbing the ranks and taking leadership roles, and it’s bound to become the norm: Something we indeed won’t have to talk about anymore, like Dr. Feinberg hopes.

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