When Maisa Al-Sebaei was growing up in Saudi Arabia, her parents worried she was too ambitious. “I always wanted to be the first,” she said. “When I’m told ‘No, you can’t,’ I want to make sure I can prove to everyone that I can.” But that drive has led her to succeed twice over: as a female professional in a country that has historically constrained women, and as a woman in a male-dominated dental specialty.

Last year, Al-Sebaei, MSD03 DG04, was named residency program director for oral and maxillofacial surgery (OMFS) at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, and chair of the western region training committee for OMFS certification. She is the first woman to ever hold either of those positions. “For a very long time, residency program committees and leadership positions in OMFS were off-limits for females because of the boys’ club mentality,” Al-Sebaei said. “I am proud to say I infiltrated that club.”

Map of Saudi Arabia

Al-Sebaei’s ceiling-shattering doesn’t surprise those who knew her at Tufts. During the tough OMFS residency, Al-Sebaei “was remarkable,” said her mentor, Maria Papageorge, D82, DG86, MSD89, professor and chair of OMFS at the School of Dental Medicine (and herself the first female chair of an OMFS department in the U.S.). “She’s hard-working, motivated, extremely empathetic to patients. She has excellent technical skills.” Even as women reach parity with men in other areas of dentistry, women account for approximately 18 percent of practicing oral surgeons, and male residents significantly outnumber females—mostly because the long, demanding training period makes it difficult at a time when most want to start a family, Papageorge said, and the surgeon’s penchant for toughness makes it difficult for women to do anything that might be interpreted as weakness or being less committed. “It’s people like Maisa who are driving progress,” Papageorge said. “And driving change.”

Al-Sebaei spoke with Tufts Dental Medicine from her home in Jeddah.

Why did you choose oral surgery? Do you think you face challenges within OMFS that don’t exist in other specialties?

One of the reasons I chose dentistry is that I love to work with my hands. The other reason is that they told me that the dental school at King Abdulaziz University was very competitive and my chances of being accepted were very slim. I wanted the challenge. Then, in the middle of dental school, I asked when we were going to learn about surgeries for bone fractures, and trauma, and removing tumors from the mouth. And all the professors said: ‘That’s called oral surgery, but, no, you can’t do that; it’s not a specialty designed for women. Your chances of surviving a residency are like a snowball’s chance of surviving in hell.’ From that point on, I made it a point to prove, yes, I could.

I say to women, don’t expect, as a woman in a surgical field, that your path is going to be the same as a man’s.

I notice that in other surgical specialties, women are looked upon as equals to men. OMFS is probably the only surgical field where women are looked upon differently. We need to change that.

Did you consider pursuing your career in the U.S. or somewhere outside Saudi Arabia?

I really wanted to return to Saudi Arabia to prove myself in this environment. Things have changed drastically over the past ten to fifteen years. Women are more empowered, and I’m glad to be part of that change. Right now, I have no problem working as a woman surgeon—at least, my issues aren’t different from women in other countries. I’m glad I can serve in my country and pave the way for many other women.

Saudi Arabia has gone through so many changes. Saudi women have really proven themselves in all disciplines: business, management, dental, medical fields. The government has sent a lot of women out for scholarships in North America, who have returned with American board certifications and have been appointed as chairs and deans. I’m sure you’ve heard about the recent change in our driving situation; we will be allowed to drive starting in June, and that’s also a big change.

I work in a government hospital that takes referrals from the whole region—from Jeddah, and some rural areas. When I returned from the U.S. some of the patients from the villages, mostly those who were not well-educated, would look at me and say: ‘You’re not going to do surgery on my son or daughter—you’re a woman. Call a man!’ I got a lot of that, although things have improved dramatically. So, yes, we still have issues. Even with some other women, they say: ‘You’re busy with your family; you have kids—that makes you less qualified or less devoted.’ That’s a battle I’m still fighting.

You and your husband, Emad Al-Badawi, MSD01, DG04, have three children, ranging from a college freshman to a nine-year-old. How have you managed to balance family and career?

Balancing is not just for women in medicine, dentistry, or surgery—it’s for any woman who has a job outside of the home. Unfortunately, for a surgical field, you enter residency during your prime childbearing years, so women may think twice about engaging in a strenuous residency. But my mom was a working woman. Back when she married my dad, most women wouldn’t go to school beyond sixth grade. My father was a college graduate, and what he did was help her finish high school. And then she finished a bachelor’s, and a master’s and a Ph.D. She’s a retired university professor, and she managed to go from sixth grade to Ph.D. while having four children and running a family. I never felt my mom wasn’t there. For me, it was the normal thing to do.

I was fortunate to marry my dental school classmate. He’s in the field and he supported me when we got married and I wanted to do OMFS. I owe him a lot for his support and sacrifice. Eight months after we got married, we traveled to Tufts. During my residency his schedule was a little lighter, and he changed his arrangement around so that I’d be able to do my training.

A lot of the younger women come to me and say, ‘How do you do it?’ I say, ‘You must have support from your family and spouse.’ And there are other things: Be very flexible; be resourceful and try to be very organized. And learn to simply your life—if the pizza delivery guy knows my voice the minute I say hello, that’s not the end of the world. In the event you lose focus, just regroup and reprioritize.

When I arrived in Boston, I found out I was six to seven weeks pregnant, which was a surprise. And here’s where I say to women, don’t expect, as a woman in a surgical field, that your path is going to be the same as a man’s. I took six years to finish my residency and master’s degree, where a man could have done it in four—but, I also had a baby. I call him my ‘residency baby.’

You mention your mentor, Professor Maria Papageorge, as an influence in your life and career. What advice did she give you?

When I came to the states in 1998, I thought they would greet me with open arms and I wouldn’t find the same issues like the boys’ club I have here. But when I got there, Dr. Papageorge warned me it was not going to be a walk in the park. I’m very grateful for her solid advice, although I didn’t like it at the time. She told me: Don’t ask for favors. Don’t ask for any preferences. During the period of your residency, you are one of the guys.And that was really great advice. Currently, one out of fifteen residents [in the program I oversee in Jeddah] is a woman. I brought her to my office and said, ‘Let’s talk.’ And I gave her the same advice Dr. Papageorge gave me.

Helene Ragovin, the editor of Tufts Dental Medicine magazine, can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.

Helene Ragovin

Helene Ragovin, senior writer at Tufts and editor of Tufts Dental Medicine, can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.