Bulletin of Dental Education

Desserts Sweeten Discussion of Gender and Ethnic Divisions

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By Nicole Fauteux

Medicine and dentistry, diversity and disparities, the age old divide between women and men. Eve J. Higginbotham, M.D., featured speaker at the 2013 ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition Evening Plenary on Gender Issues: Discourse and Dessert, touched on all these topics and even questioned Sheryl Sandberg’s advice while her audience indulged in after-dinner treats.

The presentation, “Cracking the Glass Ceiling in Academia: Opportunities and Challenges,” started on a light note, with the speaker saying it was “comforting to know that dentists have dessert” and impressing her audience with the revelation that her 97-year-old mother still has her teeth. Dr. Higginbotham then concentrated the remainder of her talk on the gender and ethnic divides in medicine and dentistry, drawing largely on her experience and knowledge of trends in academic medicine.

Dr. Higginbotham, who is currently a Visiting Scholar in Health Equity at the Association of American Medical Colleges, was the first woman to head a university-based ophthalmology department in the United States. She went on to become Dean and then Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at the Morehouse School of Medicine. She noted that many more women are coming through the doors into medicine and dentistry, but that few are rising in the ranks at the pace of their male colleagues. In medicine, she said that women faculty members are leaving as quickly as they are arriving, and she noted that dentistry has only nine deans who are women, two of whom will soon be leaving their posts.

“Why is it so leaky?” she asks. She pointed to cultural problems, quoting one senior woman faculty member who said, “I never felt I belonged…. The environment that I was in was quite toxic in an interpersonal way.”

Dr. Higginbotham recommended a number of policies and practices to support retention of underrepresented minority and women faculty. These included creating policies and procedures that establish equity in opportunity and reward, faculty development, accommodating dual career couples, and delaying the tenure clock with the birth or adoption of a child. Her call for paid maternity and paternity leave drew applause from an audience that seemed to share the speaker’s belief that workforce diversity matters because it has implications for the public’s health.

“We have complex problems to solve,” Dr. Higginbotham says, pointing out the persistence of disparities in oral health. She sits on a Department of Defense board and spoke about the fact that half of recent U.S. military recruits need a significant level of dental work. “Some people join the military to get dental work,” she reports, “and it is the primary reason people are taken out of the field.”

On a more personal note, Dr. Higginbotham said that as an ophthalmologist, she feels a kinship with dentistry since both fields, traditionally, have been marginalized when it comes to overall health.

During the question-and-answer period that followed her talk, Dr. Higginbotham responded to a question about Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s headline-grabbing book Lean In. Asked what she thought of Sandburg’s advice that women tackle unfair situations in a womanly manner, accepting compliments, saying thank you, and being demure, Dr. Higginbotham responded that women shouldn’t have to go outside of their comfort zones or alter their personalities. Nevertheless, they need to make conscious decisions about how they act in the workplace. She volunteered that as a department chair, she used the power of symbols to emphasize her role. “I always wore a white coat,” she says, “and I always sat behind my desk when talking with faculty.”

This insight from a physician-educator who has cracked the glass ceiling provided a welcome dose of inspiration at the end of an otherwise sobering presentation.

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