Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Professionalization, Gender and Female-Dominated Professions: Dental Hygiene in Ontario *

Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Professionalization, Gender and Female-Dominated Professions: Dental Hygiene in Ontario *

Article excerpt

PROFESSIONS ARE GENDERED INSTITUTIONS. In the past, the term "professional" was reserved for a select number of male-dominated occupations, including medicine, dentistry, law and engineering. Women's professions have been "qualified" professions: semi-professions, subordinate professions, or more recently, "aspiring" professions. Women's professions have fewer of the characteristics that are seen to define a full profession: notably, autonomy, pay, prestige, and a specialized body of knowledge. Nonetheless, female-dominated professions have been striving to improve their professional status for some time. In Ontario, they have been particularly active in the past two decades because of the initiative by that province's government to completely review and overhaul health profession legislation--the result of which, after several years of study, was the Regulated Health Professions Act, 1991. Given the gendered nature of professions, those professionalizing female-dominated occupations are faced with a dilemma: how can they achieve professional status, if full professions, virtually by definition, are the province of men?

This paper seeks to explore this dilemma and the significance of gender to professionalization by addressing two questions. First, from what position are leaders in female-dominated professions seeking professional status? Second, how does gender shape their professional projects? These questions will be addressed through a case study of the dental hygiene profession in Ontario. Although newer than many female-dominated professions, dental hygiene is striving for professional status, and is experiencing many of the same barriers and challenges experienced by other female-dominated professions, notably nursing. While nursing has received a great deal of scholarly attention (for example, Coburn, 1988; McPherson, 1996; Melosh, 1982; Reverby, 1987), and there have been a few sociological studies of other female-dominated professions like midwifery and physiotherapy (Bourgeanlt and Fynes, 1997; Fahmy-Eid et al., 1997; Heap, 1995), there have been virtually no studies of dental hygiene. By exploring dental hygienists' experiences and comparing them with those of other female-dominated professions, insight may be gained into women's professional projects more generally.

Because so little has been written about dental hygiene as a profession, in this paper I first review the factors that led to the establishment of dental hygiene in Ontario. Dental hygiene was created by dentists who sought a female-dominated, subordinate, auxiliary occupation to help them with their work. Second, I discuss the significance of gender, and specifically the women's movement, to the professional project pursued by dental hygiene leaders, and examine how feminism has shaped the form and content of hygienists' professional project. Lastly, I briefly review the ways in which gender continues to influence the strategies that dental hygiene leaders, like those in other female-dominated professions, pursue in their efforts to professionalize.

Leaders in female-dominated professions are grappling with a system of professions that is gendered, and professional relations with dominant male professions that have also been historically structured by gender relations (Abbott, 1988; Adams, 2000). To attain professional status, many professional leaders believe that they have to identify and challenge the gender inequities inherent in the system of professions. Interestingly, however, rather than seeking to eliminate gender as an element in the definition of professional work, these leaders seek to change its significance. The fact that they are women is not irrelevant to their professional project, but central to it. Influenced by feminism, occupational leaders argue that women have particular traits and abilities that make them good professionals. Thus, while traditionally being in a female-dominated occupation has been an impediment to professionalization, current leaders try to turn femininity into an asset. …

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