Sara Hurley – leading the charge

sara hurley leadershipSara Hurley speaks to Gemma Bridge about her role as a Global Child Dental Fund trustee and how the Senior Dental Leadership programme can support women within the profession.

Gemma Bridge (GB): Why did you agree to become a trustee of the Global Child Dental Fund?

Sara Hurley (SH): I was delighted to be invited to join the Global Child Dental Fund as a trustee; it is an opportunity to pool the wealth of learning that each trustee brings to the table.

This voluntary role sits comfortably alongside my full-time job as chief dental officer for England. It gives me a chance to further champion the integration of oral health and general health. To build strategic partnerships and develop clinical leaders who will help address oral health inequality.

GB: You are to become co-director of the Senior Dental Leadership programme with Professor Raman Bedi. What made you decide to take on this role?

SH: Having experienced the value of the Senior Dental Leadership (SDL) programme first hand, I was delighted when Raman invited me to support the continuity and evolution of the programme.

Leadership is about more than a formal appointment or rank. We all have the potential to be leaders but tapping into the leadership potential isn’t easy; no one individual will have sufficient knowledge or expertise to make all the strategic decisions. Especially in the complex environment of global oral health.

As COVID has shown us, leveraging the strengths of all to overcome adversity and challenge is important. So, I’m looking forward to using my leadership experiences to guide me in this new role, supporting the next generation of international senior dental leaders in developing a deeper understanding of what constitutes successful oral health leadership.

GB: Leadership of the dental profession remains largely male – why do you think this is?

SH: Women face a whole variety of challenges in their leadership journey. Women have to contend with prejudice, societal norms, cultural conventions as much as the psychological drivers and resistance to change. Finally, we have the leap across the ‘authority gap’.

Personal experience testifies to the fact that we still have a long way to go for women to be judged equally to men in leadership positions.

However, there is a welcome change in culture and perspective. I detect an increasing recognition that differences in leadership styles across groups are strengths and not weaknesses. Complementary leadership traits are vital if we are going to deliver sustainable change.

Value is being placed on emotional intelligence and lived experience, traits that make leaders more approachable and trustworthy. We need to encourage participatory leadership at every level and confound conscious and unconscious bias towards more stereotypically male characteristics. We need to acknowledge that gender differences do exist. Rather than asking women to change, we should capitalise on diversity.

It’s also worth pointing out how far dentistry has come. Many women now own and run practices. Many of the top positions in NHS dentistry, both clinical and non-clinical, are held by women, myself included.

I am deeply proud to follow in the footsteps of the great Dame Margaret Seward, the first woman CDO. Her passing in July was a very sad moment. It was also an opportunity to reflect on a strong, female leader, who achieved a great deal.

GB: How do you think that the SDL programme can contribute to system-wide professional and clinical leadership, particularly of women, around the world?

SH: Strategic dental leaders are in short supply globally. If we are to tackle the ongoing issue of poor oral health then we need to increase the oral health literacy of national decision makers that plan and shape public health policy and clinical services.

Each one of us in the dental profession has an advocacy responsibility. However, senior dental leaders can play a significant role at the global level. We need to ensure that there is equal access to leadership opportunities. Mentors and social support from peers should be available to all.

SDL is a vital component in improving access to professional opportunities for the dental community. Reflecting on the 13 years of the SDL programme and the roles and responsibilities now held by many of the alumni, it is clear that SDL was the tipping point that has enabled many women to take their rightful place in leadership forums such as academic and clinical networks, boardrooms or the political health arena. They all recognised that leadership is a responsibility to do more, not less. The impact they deliver is truly global.

GB: Why is it important to encourage more females to take up leadership roles in dentistry?

SH: Most importantly, and in many ways obviously, women have every right to be leaders, just as much as men.

But it’s also worth noting that women make up approximately 75% of the health workforce. They have a limited representation at higher levels of health leadership. Promoting the participation of women, and other underrepresented groups, as leaders in dental care will improve the functioning of health care systems.

Women hold the key to unlocking many solutions to the problems we face by bringing a complementary perspective to culture and leadership. Increasing the representation of women in leadership will strengthen the dental profession, improve recruitment and retention, and embed quality, respect and dignity.

The profession is stronger when we embrace and accept diversity and ensure equality for all. We need women leaders to be at the forefront of our drive for oral health equity.

GB: What impact could female leaders have on oral health?

SH: If we can achieve gender parity at senior leadership levels, we can ensure that women are actively involved in the decision making that underpins oral health policy and practice. Women are overwhelmingly the decision makers for meeting the dental health needs of their families, making the majority of household oral health purchases.

By bringing their lived experiences to challenge the status quo, by listening and leveraging others’ expertise, we can make our common vision for oral health a reality. With access to high quality dental care an essential factor in reducing poverty and establishing productive, sustainable economies, it is beneficial for all if women are strongly represented in the senior global leadership of oral health.

GB: Do you think there are any other groups that should be encouraged/supported to take up leadership roles in dentistry?

SH: We are all too aware that inequality and barriers to success exist not just for women, but also our LGBTQ+ community, those with a disability, people who are from different socioeconomic backgrounds and many more.

We know that ethnic minority communities have poor representation in leadership roles across society. I was very proud of how my office supported the Diversity in Dentistry Action Group to take this agenda forward. We all have a responsibility as allies to protect and promote the interests of minority and disadvantaged groups.

GB: What advice would you give to female dentists and dental students as they embark on their careers?

SH: Do not expect anyone else to be more interested in your career than you are. Life is complex so set a vision for yourself that blends rather than balances, career, family, and self.

Find your passion and stay curious. Above all, enjoy what you have chosen to do. Consider voluntary activities or being a board member of a charity as additional avenues for your passion and talents – it will enhance your personal and professional development and value to others; it will be an incredibly satisfying experience.

Be yourself; people value integrity and authenticity as much as expertise. Make sure that people know they can rely on you. If you make a mistake – own it – don’t deny it, take responsibility for it. You will build trust along with building integrity.

Build up a portfolio of experiential learning. Tangible examples of your consistency and reliability in applying your learning and improving your skills and competencies as a result of success. More importantly, what you did when you fell short of expectation are priceless commodities.

Recognise that women do face different challenges than their male counterparts. There are still those that cannot offer equality, respect and integrity in every interaction or on every occasion. Have the moral courage to call it out, name it and stop it. 

An enduring mantra throughout my tenure as CDO has been to challenge orthodoxy. Offer bold thinking, not just to make sense of uncertainty and complexity, but also to contest received wisdom that has become defensive and too comfortable. The caveat to this is that you must always be able to cast a critical eye over your own thought processes to betray bias or wishful thinking. 

Critically, you can’t do it all on your own. Trust the evidence of your own abilities and have the humility to admit shortfalls, then focus on working to learn from them. Accept offers of support, ask for help and always acknowledge individuals for the time and advice they give you. When working in a team, empower those around you, sacrifice the credit and let people know how their assistance contributed to success. 


This article was first published in Dentistry magazine. Read the latest issue of Dentistry magazine here.

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