Many students enter trade schools, colleges and universities with the primary goal of obtaining meaningful employment after graduation. There is a lot that goes into preparing for the transition into gainful employment, but professional standards of dress and conduct are among the most challenging to navigate. We are told that to be competitive, we need to “look and act professionally” at job fairs, networking events, interviews and practically anywhere you could run into a prospective employer. There are more than a few people who believe professionalism is the “key to success,” ensuring that the field is level for all job-seekers and employees. However, we often do not take the time to acknowledge how these unspoken rules stifle individuality and creativity and ultimately reinforce social hierarchies that center the white, male, cisgender, heterosexual and upper-class aesthetic. To those who do not fit this mold, existing in a professional space can be tiring or even traumatic.
When used in this way, professionalism is about maintaining control over the workforce by having employees adopt a style of dress intended to cultivate productivity in the workplace and sustain a specific sanitized public image. These standards are defined in opposition to black and brown people, LGBTQ-identifying people, the true working class and other marginalized communities. There are several instances of this: the prohibitive cost of professional clothing alienates impoverished people from accessing higher-income positions so much so that there are a number of non-profits with the specific mission of helping people in poverty access these resources. Hijabi Muslim women are often told that their apparel is against the dress code of certain workspaces despite their practice being a protected civil right. Androgynous and gender non-binary people may find it excruciatingly difficult to balance what is “professional” and what fits their self-image, especially in the male-dominated workplace where femininity is generally construed as a weakness. While these are only a few examples, they all demonstrate how professionalism creates uncomfortable, unsafe work environments that produce fear, anxiety and stress for the people whose identities run counter to the power structure.
In recent years, people have taken to social media to tell their outrageous stories about workplace discrimination in the name of professionalism — it is crucial that we take each case seriously and respond accordingly with support for the oppressed. What is more, psychological and social researchers continue to build a strong evidence base that shows how cognitive biases influence our actions and daily lives. Of note is research on how black women cope with workplace stressors, including attacks made over their hairstyles and headgear. The “Good Hair” study, conducted by the Perception Institute, studied the explicit and implicit attitudes toward black women’s hair by having more than 4,000 participants take an online implicit association test (IAT). Researchers concluded that “a majority of participants, regardless of race, show implicit bias against textured hair.” Nonetheless, a major takeaway is that white women “demonstrated the strongest bias” against textured hair, rating is as “less beautiful,” “less sexy/attractive,” as well as “less professional than smooth hair.” The implications of this finding are particularly concerning when considering that white women make up the vast majority of female managers and oftentimes, courts rule in favor of employers when black women pursue legal action. This gendered and racial inequality prevents black women from maintaining reliable, fairly-compensated employment, a factor in the intergenerational, racial wealth gap that continues to plague people to this day.
The way in which these systems of oppression interact and intersect is called kyriarchy, a term coined by postcolonial scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza that extends the concept of patriarchy beyond gender to encompass all our identities. Examining professionalism and dress codes with this lens leads me to view these policies as inherently unequal and a direct challenge to social progress for the many. To foster a truly inclusive and safe workplace, we need to end dress code policies as they are currently implemented and promote a definition of professionalism that is grounded in mutual respect and social justice. More than just the buzzwords we use in the office, true inclusion and empowerment lets employees express themselves accordingly so they can lead engaged and successful careers and lives. The work we do can be rewarding and life-affirming but not if we are subjected to a traumatic, violent workplace that values profit accumulation over our health, identity and well-being. The path to liberation necessitates that we begin to question notions of professionalism, who benefits most from the status quo and how we begin to dismantle them to actualize a truly just society.
Thalya Reyes is an Edward J. Bloustein School of Public Policy master's candidate for public policy and city and regional planning. Her column, "Free as in Libre," runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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