The Importance of Being First

Contributor: Jeanne C. Sinkford, D.D.S., Ph.D., Iconic Figure in Dental Education and Founder of the ADEA IWLC

Country: United States of America

Jeanne SinkfordThe work of Dr. Jeanne C. Sinkford—the first female dean of a U.S. dental school—continues to inspire generations of women dental professionals around the world. Founder of ADEA’s International Women’s Leadership Conference (ADEA IWLC) and renowned leader in dental education, she is a driving force in cultivating a global community of women leaders that ultimately contributes to better oral health outcomes. Throughout her career, Dr. Sinkford has been a role model for women pursuing a career in dentistry, helping to prepare the next generation of dental innovators and leaders. Dr. Sinkford’s long-term success advancing women's leadership serves as a call to action for all women dental professionals.

Always willing to share her experiences in dental education, Dr. Sinkford answers our questions below with keen insights and reflects powerful lessons learned.

1. How was your life impacted by being the first woman dean of a U.S. dental school?

Being the “first” of anything is a challenge for both expectations and performance. I never saw myself as a “woman dean,” but as a competent professional who had an opportunity to lead where my preparation for leadership and experience were needed. I had been a department chair, associate dean, and acting dean in the absence of the dean. The deanship committed me to a life of advocacy and stewardship, especially related to underrepresented minorities and women. I think the deanship was a challenge to me and to my leadership team.  

2. What motivated you as a child and throughout your early career?

As a child I was motivated by my mother and father, along with family values. My community and teachers contributed to my social and personal development. Discipline and leadership was learned in the Girl Scouts and in my high school cadet corps. I was also motivated and mentored by my family dentist who recognized my academic potential and manual dexterity. The first woman dentist that I actually knew was from Latvia.   

3. What were the key lessons you learned along the way? 

I continue to learn. As a scholar, I am both a teacher and a student. Key lessons I’ve learned include the importance of time management; patience; tolerance—“don’t sweat the small stuff”; the value of friendship; optimism negates pessimism; reading constantly and extensively; and expecting the best, being prepared for the worst. I have also learned the importance of stewardship as well as leadership.  

4. Since your tenure, how has the landscape for women leaders in dental education, research and practice changed? What’s new?

There have been significant changes, especially in numbers. When I entered the profession, only 2% of the dentists were women. The preparation and potential of women is now recognized as exhibited by the increase in numbers of women who are now deans, department chairs and who hold research leadership positions in U.S. dental schools. Today 46% of dental students are women; 20% of practicing dentists are women and 32% of dental faculty members are women. Women are now 41% of the enrollment in advanced dental education programs. Twenty-two (or 33%) of the research leadership positions in U.S. dental schools are now held by women and 20% of U.S. dental deans are women! As in Europe and other parts of the world, dentistry is an attractive profession for women in the United States. ADEA is now supporting leadership training opportunities for allied dental professionals to enhance their value in the dental workforce of the future. 

5. Why is it important for women leaders to have a strong presence in dentistry?

It is important for women to have a presence for their talent and skills as leaders, but also as role models and mentors for younger women and girls. The stereotypes that deter girls from math and science pursuits continue to exist, thereby influencing their academic preparation and interest in required courses. It is important for women to serve as competent health professionals at all levels and across disciplines. The presence of women is needed also to address women’s health issues that are neglected in research, practice and policy.  

Jeanne Craig Sinkford, D.D.S., Ph.D. is the Senior Scholar-in-Residence in the Office of the ADEA President and CEO. Dr. Sinkford previously served as Director of the Association’s former Division of Minority and Women’s Affairs, and then as Associate Executive Director for Equity and Diversity. Currently Professor and Dean Emeritus of Howard University College of Dentistry, Dr. Sinkford served as the School’s Dean from 1975 to 1991. Prior to her deanship, Dr. Sinkford chaired the Department of Prosthodontics and served as Associate Dean and a graduate school faculty member. She holds honorary degrees from Georgetown University, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, the University of Detroit Mercy and Meharry Medical College. She has been a Member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies since 1975.

The Women Leaders’ VOICES series of articles by five women trailblazers and emerging pioneers explores various topics and issues facing the health sector worldwide. Each ADEA Women Leaders' VOICES article—which is hosted online by the American Dental Education Association’s 5th ADEA International Women’s Leadership Conference—features commissioned Q&A content for the global dental education, research, and practice community. Commissioned articles are branded with the ADEA Women Leaders' VOICES series signature design, and content is published consecutively over a period of time.  For additional information, please contact Sonja Harrison, M.S.W. at