Is “Professionalism” Holding Women Back?

In the business world, people expect each other to look and behave in professional ways — but “professional” means different things at different workplaces. If your workplace has an official code of conduct, it probably covers topics like treating others with respect, but it may also include guidelines on how you’re expected to look, dress, and act on the job.

Depending on who created them, and when they were last updated, those standards of “professionalism” may reflect unconscious bias. For example, if a company’s definition of professionalism includes “dressing appropriately,” who decides what clothing is considered appropriate? Is there any flexibility when it comes to body type, gender identity, cultural heritage, or other factors? It’s easy to see how “professionalism” could be used to discriminate against someone who doesn’t fit a certain mold.

Authenticity Matters

At Forté, we often talk about the importance of bringing your authentic self to work. Each person’s authentic self is different, and it makes sense for those differences to be reflected in the workplace.

You’ll know you’re in the right work environment when you’re comfortable being your authentic self and you feel supported to do your best work.

Many Black women have faced criticism — and been labeled “unprofessional” —  for wearing their hair in natural styles instead of using chemical straighteners or wigs to conform to white beauty standards. How a Black woman wears her hair doesn’t affect her professionalism; what matters is how well she performs her job.

That’s why there’s a growing movement in the United States to ban hair discrimination. The CROWN Act, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, is a law banning discrimination based on hair style and texture. It passed in California in 2019. Since then, 12 other states, along with dozens of cities and counties, have passed similar versions of the law.

How “Culture Fit” Can Hide Bias

Some companies include “culture fit” in how they define professionalism, but whether or not someone is a good “fit” for the organization is often a matter of opinion. During the hiring process, a candidate with the right skills and experience sometimes gets rejected because they aren’t the right “cultural fit.” But what does that really mean? It could just be that the hiring manager can’t imagine themselves hanging out with that person.

When Patty McCord, a consultant who served as Chief Talent Officer at Netflix for many years, wrote about culture fit in the Harvard Business Review, she said, “This misguided hiring strategy can also contribute to a company’s lack of diversity, since very often the people we enjoy hanging out with have backgrounds much like our own.”

Professionalism Isn’t One-Size-Fits-All

Today, many top companies have made it a priority to create diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplaces — but at others, progress has been slow. If you find yourself trying to fit someone else’s definition of professionalism to advance in your career, step back and think about what professionalism means to you.

You’ll know you’re in the right work environment when you’re comfortable being your authentic self and you feel supported to do your best work. If your current workplace doesn’t value who you are and what you bring to the table, show yourself the respect of finding a company that does.

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