Professionalism, at its basest level, is the expectation that if you have to work with someone you don’t particularly like, you prioritize the goals of social harmony and team cooperation in order to achieve a larger goal. And in order to do that, you sometimes keep your true opinions to yourself.
But professionalism in everyday life has expanded past the idea of filtering individuals’ voices in the interest of getting along. It’s the idea that, as a member of a profession, you have an obligation to represent yourself to the public not as who you truly are, but as an extension of the values of your profession and your organization.
This means that you dress differently at work than you do at home. It means that you change your language to fit in with your co-workers. It means that you don’t talk about your workday on social media, except in positive contexts, marketing pitches, or nonspecific platitudes.
This creates a duality that is often problematic.
Before I elaborate further, I have to note that my experiences are those of a white, cis, straight woman, so my experiences come from a position of privilege that doesn’t even begin to experience the stifling ways in which the unspoken “rules” of professionalism that affect people of color, the LGBTQIA+ community, or those whose cultural or religious background are different from that of the dominant system. I can only speak authoritatively from my own experiences, which don’t begin to cover the indignities of people whose identities are farther away from that of the culturally determined “ideal” of the straight white male.
Still, I have my own problems with professionalism. The biggest is the idea that at every moment I am present in my workplace, I have to focus on being someone who thinks, acts, and expresses myself in a way that is completely at odds with the way that I am, fundamentally. I have a few examples.
I work in a chaotic healthcare environment. In a place where roles are not clearly defined, available resources are in flux, and day-to-day experiences are varied and unpredictable, my job is to know what is going on and to be able to provide up-to-date answers to any one of a variety of questions. I am capable of doing this, most of the time. The actual work isn’t usually the problem. The problem is that, as a woman in a leadership role, my level of “professionalism” not only dictates how well I am perceived, but it impacts my ability to do my job.
If I go in without makeup, or without a confident smile on my face, that doesn’t really impact my ability to do my job. But it totally affects how others perceive my level of professionalism, and I find that they start going to others to get the information they need. As it turns out, my ability to be a good leader is highly dependent on how I look, which means that I have to mold myself into an ideal that fits with people’s preconceived notions of strength and immutability and looking smart. It means I have to pretend to, essentially, be the antithesis of the stereotypically high-strung, emotional, weak woman. It is the case that, in a lot of environments, being a good leader is dependent on your ability to act like the archetypical male. Is it necessary that I must suck at leadership if I show emotion, or a face that isn’t caked with cosmetic gunk?
A friend of a friend is a doctor who works for a large organization. (Please forgive the vagueness; I’m trying to protect the identity of those involved.) In the area where she works, there were large Occupy Wall Street protests. One day, she put on her trademark white coat with the organizational logo on it and decided to go out and write sick notes for some of the protesters. When the organization found out, there were serious professional ramifications. Now, it’s not like she did anything that could have endangered someone’s life. Writing sick notes for people who aren’t strictly sick isn’t really honest, to be fair, but she weighed that moral dilemma against what she perceived as the protestors’ moral imperative to stand up for their beliefs.
Here, there is the duality between a person’s identity as a doctor—who, according to their organization, is someone of authority who can be trusted to be truthful and is apolitical—and someone who has strong political beliefs. Professionalism dictates that the former should determine their actions. But is that really necessary? Do we really have to erase the identity of our doctors in order to trust them? I think actually the opposite is true. I hesitate to trust anyone who can hide who they are before a professional façade. If they can pretend they’re someone they’re not, how can I trust them to have candor when discussing my medical conditions?
And finally, another “me” anecdote. I was at a professional conference where some creepy old guy professor kept touching my arm and being bombastic about how awesome he was while criticizing my poster. I was uncomfortable, and I posted on my personal Facebook page questioning whether or not this was sexual harassment and asking my female friends if they had ever had similar experiences. I didn’t say what conference it was, but I identified the day of the week and the state I thought the professor was from.
Much to my surprise, it came down the grapevine that posting any identifiers about this person or the organization who sponsored me to go to the conference was “unprofessional.” The organization’s director even suggested that posting identifiers could impact my ability to make an impactful complaint against this creeper, if I chose to do so.
Why do we sit back and accept that if we want to say something about something wrong in our society, we will have professional consequences? Why do have to compromise our beliefs in order to get ahead?
I think it’s clear that professionalism is incongruous with diversity—of opinion, of background, and of identity. In order to be successful professionals, we have to mold ourselves to be people who don’t stand out. We try to change our identities to fit into systems that will benefit the people who already hold most of the power in our society.
This needs to change. We should never be okay with receiving professional backlash over doing what is right in our hearts, feeling valid emotions, or asking for support. Professionals shouldn’t be punished for being ourselves, strong and weak and different in all sorts of ways.
By putting on a façade when we step into the workplace, we invalidate who we are as human beings. So let’s not. Let’s push to create workplace environments that don’t encourage homogeneity and that let the unorthodox advance.
Let’s have a conversation about what it means to actually be professional—people who are talented in a profession.
Ethan Wilson’s best friends are her two cats, Cloud and Scout, and a giant stuffed neuron named Squid. At any given time she can be found ranting against the patriarchy, jumping up and down excitedly over pictures of microscopic objects, or wearing her wonder woman apron while drinking cheap apple cider from 7/11 and trying to figure out the best way to stuff spinach-artichoke dip into garlic rolls.
Photo credit: Mark Sebastian