Career & Education / Climbing The Ladder

Professionalism Is A Myth That Blames Marginalized Folks For Oppression

By Saturday, October 10, 2020

Photo of empty seat in front of desk

Professionalism, in theory, isn’t a bad thing. The myth of professionalism is not that there is no such thing as being professional. After all, it’s just a word to describe when someone is an expert at what they do and conducts business in a courteous and respectful manner. In actuality, we should all probably try to put our best selves forward at work and strive to be excellent at what we do; so expecting people to be professional seems reasonable enough. However, too often we’re not talking about whether people actually know what they’re doing. We’re talking about whether they look like they know what they’re doing and whether they seenprofessional. 

 This is where the myth starts to creep in. When we talk about professionalism as a “vibe,” we’re treating professionalism like it’s a set of guidelines or rules to follow in order to unlock success. These rules come with a special emphasis on the way someone presents themself, rather than the way they present their know-how. In these discussions, we’re acting as though everyone is playing by the same set of objectives. There’s the implication that these standards are applied equally to all of us and that adhering to them is how people succeed and is the reason others take them — and their expertise — seriously. The natural conclusion this leaves us with is that when people are being passed over for promotions, paid less, and/or spoken over, it’s because they’re not following the rules and this is the real myth of professionalism.

We’re not all playing by the same rules. Our personal experiences and media portrayals of bosses, leaders, and experts gives us a shared cultural prototype for the professional aesthetic, which shapes those professionalism guidelines, as mentioned above. This prototype is generally a well-dressed (read: expensively), highly educated, white man who is a native speaker of a nondescript English dialect and married to a woman. The closer someone is to this prototypical professional, the more rules they can break.

“The closer someone is to this prototypical professional, the more rules they can break.”

Mark Zuckerberg is known for wearing a super casual uniform of jeans, t-shirts, and hoodies. However, he’s also white, wealthy, a native speaker of American English, and he attended a prestigious university. Since he’s prototypical in nearly every way, Zuckerberg gets away with a more relaxed appearance and still gets to be seen as, “Someone Who Is Good At And Takes Their Work Seriously.”

Breaking rules is only really possible if you closely align with the prototype. For the rest of us, infractions are used to explain away the mistreatment, disrespect, or dismissive attitudes we receive the privileges we don’t have.

To give a small, but not too personal example: a few years ago, after giving a speech at a local school board meeting, a man approached me with some unsolicited feedback. He mentioned nothing about what I said. Instead, he let me know that my pronunciations of “then” and “than” were too similar (FYI: I say “than” the same as “then” unless I’m paying special attention to the way I pronounce the words; the short linguistic explanation of this is ‘pre-nasal vowel mergers’). He wanted to let me know, in his own words, that this mispronunciation made it hard for him to see me as the “articulate, well-educated young lady,” that he knew me to be. He also said it wouldn’t hurt if “I dressed up more” next time.

I bring up this personal experience because it is such an absurd and relatively harmless example of the way professionalism is often not about whether we are being a professional (demonstrating professional-level knowledge and experience), but about whether we’re putting on a convincing enough show of acting professional (or rather, acting as a professional). This particular critic wasn’t taking my speech seriously and, to explain that, he brought up what I could do differently to convince him that it was worth listening to me.

“Dress for the job you want,” is terrible advice when most of the time people are only paying close attention to what you’re wearing if they’re looking for a reason to dismiss you. There’s a reason nobody dissects what male politicians are wearing. Rather than on well-meaning advice, our energies would be better spent on asking why it’s these particular traits that are seen as “inherently” more professional or valuable. Why are some ways of speaking associated with being uneducated? Why are certain hairstyles and textures considered more “clean-cut”? And what the hell does wearing a bikini outside of work have to do with what a woman does at work? The unfortunate reality is that most of the factors we use to measure how professional someone is are rooted in sexism, racism, homophobia, and classism. That means a lot of our well-meaning advice is rooted in the same nastiness, and above all, we value behaviors, interaction styles, and appearances that we associate with power. Guidelines for how to be more professional are really just rules for how to seem more like the privileged. We’re not being taken less seriously because of the way they speak; we’re being taken less seriously because of who we are

“Guidelines for how to be more professional are really just rules for how to seem more like the privileged.”

This game is nothing new. It’s a very specific flavor of respectability politics. Respectability politics essentially tell people that acting “respectably” earns respect. For professionalism, this means that if you can convince others that you’re a professional, then they’ll treat you accordingly — except when it doesn’t work. These arguments are used to blame marginalized folks for not succeeding in a system that was designed to exclude them in the first place. Focusing on what women, queer, BIPOC, and working-class people should be changing about their behavior, speech, and presentation displaces the blame from oppressive systems onto the shoulders of the oppressed. But if people default to viewing you as a professional, then you have nothing to prove and no reason to follow the rules a la the Zuckerberg uniform. The rules aren’t for members of the most privileged groups. If you can lean on nepotism, generational wealth, and social privilege then you don’t have to prove yourself to others. 

Marginalized folks who “make it” often perpetuate that following these rules was the key to their success. America loves female CEOs, black millionaires, and queer rags-to-riches stories. To be palatable, the stories must frame the ways in which the individual overcame various prejudices by proving themselves, usually by changing parts of their behavior to fit in and game the system. You see this a lot with #GirlBoss, corporate feminism: CEOs writing articles and giving interviews about how women who want success should apologize less at work, or otherwise “fix” their verbal tendencies.

Author Gina Vaynshteyn did a great job recently tackling this subject here on TFD, but to boil the problem down to its core — we are telling women that their supposed missteps are the reason that they are being ignored, put down, or otherwise mistreated at work. This hits right on the heart of professionalism’s myth: each individual is solely responsible for how others perceive and treat them. Putting the onus on how each marginalized individual can fix themselves enables us to look away from the more obvious, systemic explanation that the mistreatment they’re facing is because of discrimination and prejudice. 

“Ultimately, we’re telling women that their supposed missteps are the reason that they are being ignored, put down, or otherwise mistreated at work.”

Admittedly, it is a lot easier to change something like, how often you say “sorry”, the way you pronounce “then” and “than”, or the way you style your hair, than it is to address systemic racism, sexism, ableism, and all the other bad -isms and -phobias. There are so many forms of discrimination to fix that it’s more than a little overwhelming and exhausting. That’s why professionalism is such a pervasive, successful myth: it convinces us each that there is something that we, individually, can do to navigate and overcome problems like homophobia and classism for ourselves. Maybe if you stop saying sorry, they’ll read you as confident and start listening to what you have to say. Maybe if you wear a fancier blouse to work then others won’t be given – or steal – credit for work you’re doing.

If you find out others are being paid more for doing the same work as you, even with having fewer qualifications and experience than you, then maybe you can just try changing your hairstyle. Then they’ll see you for the badass boss babe you are! But really, we can’t just wedge ourselves into a broken system and call it justice.

We have to create new systems, ones with space(s) for everyone, rather than settling for the easy aesthetic of diversity without the heavy work of removing the barriers that make robust diversity impossible. So, we have to stop telling each other to dress for success and acting like that’ll fix the problem. We have to stop perpetuating the myth that achieving a high enough level of professionalism will fix systemic issues. 

Ariel is a writer and tutor living as a tumbleweed on the North American continent with her doggo and partner. She (almost) has her MA in Linguistics, is voraciously curious, and can’t seem to settle into one niche or genre.

Image via Pexels

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