Conversations with leading women in oral health series: Lessons in leadership from dental hygienists and therapists

In the third installment of FDI’s Conversations with leading women in oral health series, we spoke to four accomplished oral health professionals hailing from around the globe: Malaysia, Canada, the United States and the Netherlands. 

  • Corrie Jongbloed-Zoet, president of the International Federation of Dental Hygienists and past president of the Dutch Association of Dental Hygienists
  • Fatimah Rahman, president of the Malaysian Dental Therapists Association and principal head of Malaysia’s Dental Therapist Profession under the Ministry of Health
  • Wanda Fedora, president elect of the International Federation of Dental Hygienists and owner of a mobile dental hygiene practice in long-term care facilities on Cape Breton Island, Canada
  • Kari Carter-Cerelus, author of The Ultimate Guide for Dental Hygienist Burnout, CEO and Founder of a consulting firm to improve work culture in teams and organizations

What’s one leadership lesson you’ve learned in your career?

Kari: I’ve learned that it is important to surround yourself with goal-oriented individuals who are positive and constantly improving themselves. As Michael Dell said, “Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people, or find another room.” Leadership involves humbling yourself so that you learn from others and evolve into who you are meant to be.

Wanda: I’ve learned to understand the personalities of the people I work with. There will always be the ‘overly verbal’ board members and giving them the opportunity to voice their opinionwithin reason—satisfies their need to be heard. Getting a feel for the types of people you’re working with makes for a good leader and a more productive group.


Fatimah: No one is born to be a leader. How the leader inspires, directs, mentors, counsels, recognizes, and influences the people around them can be accomplished through many different styles and techniques. At times, the tough decisions leaders make are the ones that others cannot make. As a leader, it’s your job to drive change and not avoid it.

Corrie: I’ve learned to listen well, to stand up for preventive oral healthcare at all times, and not to be intimidated too much by more experienced board members. I’ve also learned—being in a leadership position myself—to give younger or less experienced colleagues the opportunity to express their thoughts, to come up with new ideas and—again—listen well to other opinions.

What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership in the oral health field?

Kari: Women have to advocate for themselves and build alliances with others to make their voices heard and avoid being silenced. The qualities that are considered signs of strength in men are often perceived as negative when women exhibit them. Women need to develop strong convictions in their own voice and presence as a leader.

Fatimah: In Malaysia, women have dominated the dental therapy profession. Only in the past three years have we started training male dental therapists. We are stagnated in our career as our training programme goes only until diploma level. Unlike in other countries, we can only practice with the Ministry of Health and our job scope is tailored to the government’s plan.

What’s the greatest career risk you’ve ever taken?

Wanda: My greatest career risk would have to be opening a mobile dental hygiene practice addressing the preventive and therapeutic needs of persons in long-term care and the home bound. The need was great, but the concept was unfamiliar and acceptance was slow. I was also treading in new territory, as dental hygienists had just received government approval to operate independently and the dental community was wary of this. However, 11 years later, I now service 15 long-term care facilities with the support of local dentists that respond to my requests for consultations. I have a dental hygienist on staff and will be expanding to five dental hygienists working part time.

What have been some of the things you are most proud of throughout your career in dentistry?

Kari: I am proud of my book, The Ultimate Guide to Dental Hygienist Burnout, which helps dental professionals navigate successfully throughout their career to keep their initial passion and not get lost along the way. My consulting company, KMC Strategic Solutions, helps improve the work culture within organizations so that dental professionals have leadership and mentorship opportunities. I am most proud of my strong desire to mentor and inspire others to become empowered to make impactful changes and positively influence others.

Corrie: I am most proud of the emancipation of the profession and the (future) change from restoration to prevention! As president of the International Federation of Dental Hygienists (IFDH), I am proud to promote excellence in oral health, education, research and practice.

I served two terms as president of the Dutch Dental Hygiensts’ Association (1988–1992 and 2008–2014). During my first term, we were able to implement a “Bachelor of Health” education program for dental hygienists, which extended their 2-year education requirement to 3 years and gave them enhanced responsibilities and the right to practice independently (although a referral from a dentist was necessary). During my second term, we implemented a 4-year education program. The overall idea behind these changes: re-allocation of tasks, more focus on preventive oral healthcare and the provision of proper care by the best-equipped care provider.

What is your advice for the next generation of young women oral health professionals? In other words, if you look back, what three pieces of advice do you have for your younger self?


  • Follow your professional beliefs and ambitions in preventive oral health care, be dedicated and determined.
  • Invest in collaboration, partnerships, networks and board positions—national and international.
  • Listen to and learn from others and don’t be afraid to fail.

Wanda: I come from a small island in Atlantic Canada, with only 100,000 people. There is no dental or dental hygiene school here. By following my ambitions and being involved in my profession, I have been able to lead a thoroughly fulfilling 40+ year career. My advice to young women in an oral health profession:

  • Be the person you know you can be. Don’t settle for anything less.
  • Continuing education is invaluable. Attend any conferences and courses you can and read your journals. Bring that knowledge to work with you every day.
  • Always remember that people are people, and they may not know what you know. Treat them with respect and share your knowledge and time, whether they are your patients, your colleagues or the public.

Kari: I would tell the next generation of young women to know their worth, set boundaries, and stay connected with other professionals. We need to make sure we are properly compensated for our skills and values. If we don’t value ourselves, we can’t expect others to value us. We need to set strong boundaries and not allow others to bully us or dim our light. We need to be lifelong learners. Knowledge is power, so we need to constantly look for opportunities to become more knowledgeable to become more impactful leaders.


  • Saying yes to opportunities that are in line with your goals and interests typically pans out with some sort of upside, so don’t hesitate when something presents itself that perhaps wasn’t always on your radar.
  • Those who are successful in life have an inner motivation that propels them forward. We cannot always expect others to 'push' us. 
  • If faced with a difficult situation, focus your thoughts on moving forward. Do not think about how to finish the race or how many more challenges are left. Just focus on taking the next step.


Editor’s note: These interviews have been edited for length and clarity. The views of the interviewees are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of FDI World Dental Federation.