Critical Reflections on the Rules of “Professionalism”
As an graduate student, the construct of “professionalism” is one that invades my everyday life—particularly as I navigate the job search process. From the way my resume looks, to the way I introduce myself when interacting with potential employers, everyone seems to have a specific bit of advice on how to present my best “professional self”. The suggestions I receive range from fairly innocuous bits like what font size to use on a cover letter, all the way to unsolicited and harmful comments about the “appropriate” ways to dress and present myself in the work place. These comments are normally well-intended and their givers usually seek to be helpful and supportive as I navigate the water of potential employment. Yet, there is often an unexamined and deeper message that these suggestions carry—an insidious message that says I need to be a certain way, look a certain way, and perform my identity in a certain way to be deemed worthy of acceptance and ultimately, employment. While they may not be intended this way, the reality is that these comments serve to police the way I perform my gender, race, class, and other intersecting identities, while simultaneously undermining my educational and professional qualifications and credentials as secondary to this performance.
Jacob Tobian, in writing about the intersections of identity and professionalism, noted that “as a concept, professionalism is racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, imperialist and so much more -- and yet people act like professionalism is non-political ” (Tobian, 2014). The markers of “professionalism”, the way that people speak, dress, and interact, are all deeply based in hegemonic systems of oppression that were intended to distinguish between those who belong and those who don’t. At its core, the concept of “professionalism” is as much about dictating behavior and appearance as it is about exclusion. Yet, this critical examination of “professionalism” is not one which I have seen broadly discussed, even with the realm of Student Affairs. Instead, when we speak of “professionalism” it is presented as an assumed code of conduct to which highly educated and qualified individuals adhere to as an indicator of their ability to perform certain types of work. In layman’s terms, “professionalism” is an assumption—something you do if you want to get a job. Professionalism is how professionals act, of course.
The conflation of one’s identity as a professional (an individual with a level of expertise in a given area) and the proposed ideals of professionalism (norms of behavior, dress, speech, and interaction among certain groups) results in a power structure that is self-feeding and self-fulfilling and keeps its participants in a constant state of conformity and performance. When we buy into the rules of “professionalism”, we buy into the very systems which our field seeks to challenge and dismantle. When we perform “professionalism” we, in essence, demand equity and social justice for our students and our institutions while continuing to perpetuate oppressive practices for ourselves.
Earlier this year, Carmen Rios over at Everyday Feminism wrote a telling piece on the oppression that marginalized groups face through society’s collective enforcement of hegemonic ways of looking and behaving in work spaces. One line that particularly stood out to me in this piece reads “Professionalism reinforces a lot of ugly “isms” and often intrudes in our lives silently and without any expectation of objection” (Rios, 2015; emphasis mine). Throughout my job search, I have found myself thinking quite a bit about professionalism and about being professional—and about professionalism as a mechanism for controlling, dictating, and suppressing certain behaviors within the work setting. I’ve been mulling over the implications of Rios’ assertions over the past few months and over the ways I have seen the silent creep of professionalism in my own tiny sphere of Student Affairs. My experience within this field has been highly defined by the politics of professionalism—in fact, even as I write this piece I am being reminded of its potential implications on my professional reputation.
I have struggled with the identity politics that have been present throughout my own job process—an inherently vulnerable position where the performance of “professionalism” is a daily and lived reality. Some experiences that come to mind include the way I have had to police my fat, female body into purchasing professional clothes that neither fit, nor were made for individuals like me. The discomfort in knowing that purchasing the business suit I was told I absolutely needed was a real and deep financial burden on my family—an irony amplified by the fact that no one in my family has ever even owned such a garment or could help me find one. The manner in which my multiracial identity has made me feel like I’m being whitewashed by potential employers—as being “ethnic, but not too ethnic” for their institution, or rather, just ethnic enough to count when it comes to report the compositional diversity of staff. Or the sneaking suspicion that no matter how much money I spend on the “right” haircut, teeth whitening, or manicure that all I’m really doing is playing into stereotypical standards of beauty for my gender that simultaneously serve to discredit me as vain and frivolous.
Aside from feeling degraded and uncomfortable, I can’t help but think, Isn’t it time that as a field we deconstruct and challenge these barriers? Isn’t it time that we question why we feel the need to perpetuate the rules of professionalism for ourselves, while also considering the ways that we socialize our graduate students and new professionals into these same structures? What do we mean when we communicate the rules of professionalism to graduate students and new professionals? What we do we intend to communicate when we imply that they must play by the rules of professionalism or forfeit having desirable career and life opportunities afforded to them?
Even today there are blatantly problematic messages that are being communicated in our field—messages like telling women of Color that how they choose to wear their hair will have an impact on their perceived professionalism or that folks who don’t conform to gendered expectations of professional dress should change the way they normally dress during interviews to increase their chances of being hired. It seems clear that these types of messages reinforce hegemonic professionalism, but what about the subtler messages that are conveyed? Messages like “no resume should ever exceed two pages” or “the only way to find a job is to attend a conference placement exchange” present the job search process in absolutes. These messages reinforce the notion that there is a hidden code of conduct with unwritten rules about what will and what will NOT get you a job. They’re not inherently harmful messages, but they encourage a type of thinking that has job seekers terrified to step over some invisible line into the territory of unprofessionalism. They reinforce and reify professionalism as a single, solitary, homogenous set of behaviors and expectations for everyone—and that’s harmful.
Yet, these rules aren’t real—people get jobs even when their resumes are longer than two pages and even if they never attend a placement exchange. One can be qualified and not wear a business suit; one can be talented and choose to wear their hair natural; how you will perform in your next job will not be predicted by how much money you spend on getting to conference. These rules don’t exist absolutely—they only exist when we play into them ,follow them, and give them power. They exist because we believe in them and we hold each other accountable to them. And so, I say, when will we stop listening to the rules of professionalism and start talking about what implications they have for us?
I don’t have all the answers—in fact, I have more questions than answers. What I do know is that I too have played into the rules of “professionalism”. I’ve dressed the part and played the role and I too am complicit. There is a reality, for many with marginalized identities, that knowing or not knowing these rules can be real barriers to success, or said another way, that these rules represent a real type of social capital needed to navigate a hegemonic system predicated on their existence. Additionally, I also argue that it is important to recognize that it is no longer enough to informally communicate these rules and hope that knowing of their existence will lead to success—we need to bring them to light, talk about them, deconstruct them and defy them. It is only then that we will subvert the harmful realities of “professionalism” and hold true to the values of justice and equity that we educate and advocate for every day.
Dr. Karen. (2011, November 7). How to dress for an interview as a butch dyke. Retrieved from http://theprofessorisin.com/2011/11/07/how-to-dress-for-an-interview-as-a-butch-dyke/
Lewis, J. E. M. (2015, February 27). The Natural’s job search. Retrieved from https://www.naspa.org/constituent-groups/posts/the-naturals-job-search
Rios, C. (2015, February 15). You call it professionalism; I call it oppression in a three-piece suit.. Retrieved from http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/02/professionalism-and-oppression/
Stavrakopoulou, F. (2014, October 26). Female academics: don't power dress, forget heels – and no flowing hair allowed. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/oct/26/-sp-female-academics-dont-power-dress-forget-heels-and-no-flowing-hair-allowed
Tobia, J. (2014, June 10). Why I’m genderqueer, professional and unafraid. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jacob-tobia/genderqueer-professional-_b_5476239.html
Renata D. Baptista
Assistant Hall Director
The Ohio State University
Renata Baptista is pursuing dual master’s degrees in Higher Education and Student Affairs and in Human Resource Management and is an ACPA SCW EmpowHER Fellow.