My Orthodontia Dreams, Gender, & the Occupational Revolving Door

What does gender have to do with professional and academic aspirations? In this post, guest author Hollace Good recalls her own academic and professional goals and examines how gendered role expectations once left her questioning her decisions.

While many of my 2nd grade peers dreamt about growing up to be teachers, police officers, or Sonic the Hedgehog, I was eagerly awaiting my chance to attend dental school and becoming an orthodontist. As I obediently trooped from office to office with my mom looking for non-surgical, nightmarish headgear-free ways to correct a problematic underbite, I was fascinated by the sorcery of dental impressions and entranced by the rainbow assortment of bracket elastics. My gregarious, power-crazed little self was enamored by the command the orthodontist had over the entire office, I was in awe of his crisp, wizard-like lab coat, and covetously imagining the untold fortune he was surely earning.

As my treatment progressed and my bite slowly normalized, over the course of an expensive ten year process, I actively envisioned myself in this lab coat planning treatments for my patients. I eagerly shared my career aspirations to anyone who asked. When I was very little the adults I told were thrilled probably because my dream meshed with the social (and parental) pressures urging kids to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Despite my academic competence and enthusiasm for all things “ortho,” sometimes people around me greeted me with doubt. Snarky sentiments like “Gee, that’s awfully ambitious!” and ambivalent responses like “Yes…I’m sure you will do just fine.” were irksome, but nothing that I couldn’t cope with. The interactions that weighed on me most were always initiated by a set of sanctimonious relatives who only seemed motivated to speak to me so that they could scrutinize my ambitions. No matter how many times we discussed future plans, they never failed to ask me if I still wanted to be a dental hygienist and if I would be able to spend plenty of time at home with my family. They made me wonder: Was I being ridiculous for imagining that I, a young woman, could someday successfully occupy a position of greater power, authority, and knowledge? What is more, was I out of line for even considering a career and a family an appropriate trajectory for any woman?

Such dismissive sentiments are often engrained responses, guided and tempered by norms surrounding gender-appropriate roles and paths. Women make up the majority of licensed dental hygienists, a whopping 95%, while accounting for only 25% of practicing orthodontists according to the U.S. Census Bureau. With such a gap, no wonder people saw fit to question my goals. You are likely wondering, why is there such a stark gendered difference between dental professionals? To answer this question, I will briefly examine two models that attempt to explain these tendencies toward gender-based occupational categorizing. First, I will explore the pipeline model and follow with a discussion of the revolving door theory.

The first concept is the pipeline model, which asserts that the low number of women pursuing STEM and professional degrees, like dentistry, in college and graduate school in relation to men results from an even lower number of women demonstrating interest in these areas in primary and secondary school. The decisions to avoid STEM and professional fields in favor of more gender-appropriate paths come about as a result of the social pressures internalized throughout childhood before women set off on their academic and professional journeys. Put simply, this theory is saying that girls and young women, like myself, are talked out of pursuing these types of goals because of the negative responses we sometimes get from family, friends, and authority figures who expect us to keep ourselves and our ambitions in check. However, a recent U.S. News & World Report article argues that this scenario is more complex. The second sociological concept that seeks to build upon the pipeline model is the revolving door theory.

The revolving door theory, proposed by sociologist Jerry Jacobs, functions as an alternative to the pipeline model. While this theory also asserts that role socialization begins early in a person’s life, it goes further to state that gender-role barriers build up and become visible over a lifetime. For a woman these barriers grow as she moves from childhood into adulthood, creating obstacles that maneuver her toward more “normal” roles as she tries to take those that are not traditionally assigned to women. For me, the rude comments directed toward my goals during childhood just seemed mean-spirited – nothing I couldn’t deal with. However, throughout adolescence and into adulthood, these pigeonholing statements and actions have increased in frequency and intensity, with professors, advisors, and co-workers questioning my aspirations in order to guide me toward those that are more traditionally acceptable. As these pressures have persisted, I have come to see the legitimacy of the revolving door theory more clearly.

Just as the revolving door theory argues, I have perceived these once subtle forces and pressures building up as I move through life. What made this experience difficult in the beginning is my background as the oldest child in the 6th generation of a farming family. In this environment it was impressed upon me the absurdity of “appropriate” gender roles when there is work to be done and you are capable of tackling it. With this upbringing, I was unsure of why people around me saw fit to question my ambition of becoming an orthodontist. Worse still was the questioning and steering I experienced as I got older by advisors and instructors. Even though they wanted me and my peers to pursue our goals and strive for more, when girls had goals that were too “lofty”, more appropriate, attainable goals were encouraged. Throughout graduate school, within a diverse group of people pursuing a wide range of goals, this questioning has become less overt. However, with my professional interests still not totally aligned with what is “girl appropriate,” I am keeping in mind the revolving door theory and anticipating this resistance to increase again as I tackle further graduate work and begin my career.

Dig Deeper:

  1. How does the revolving door theory impact women’s involvement in traditionally male professional/academic fields?
  2. What other social groups may be impacted by the effects of the revolving door theory?
  3. Have gendered sentiments impacted how you have viewed your academic and/or career aspirations?
  4. Read Bidwell’s article “No ‘Leaky Pipeline’ for Women in STEM.” Does the article effectively critique the Pipeline Model and its applications to the issues surrounding women in STEM and other professional fields?