Sacha and Adriana Crawford discuss the importance of companies aligning values and actions. We also discuss the limitations of professionalism.
I am noticing quite a few social media posts about ‘professionalism’ and what is deemed professional. It’s been fascinating to watch because it’s a word that I’ve grappled with throughout my work life. Who defines professionalism?
Early in my career, I defined professionalism as – polished, well-pulled together, or dignified. It was what I knew from what I saw. For most of my life, my mother had been in corporate banking and imbued in me that ‘professional’ clothing was closer to ‘church’ than ‘home’ clothes. So I was more than prepared to walk into my first job with the appropriate attire and hair.
Fast forward a few years, and I entered the world of tech where jeans, t-shirts, and sweatshirts were the norm and – depending on the location – shoes were optional. This transition rocked my world. I had never worn jeans to work and didn’t even own a sweatshirt. Luckily I was on a marketing team that was a bit more professional than relaxed. Blazers and nice shirts readily accompanied my jeans. But my hair. I’d moved to the DC area, and though my paycheck had increased, I didn’t prepare my budget for DC hairdresser prices. So over some time, I transitioned my relaxed hair to natural with braids and other hairstyles. I never realized how much my hair could play into my ‘professionalism’ until then.
Professionalism as a Racial Construct
A few days ago, a piece entitled Professionalism as a Racial Construct by Leah Goodridge from the UCLA Law Review was in my feed. Though she speaks of legal professionalism, much of what she states impacts all industries. The heart of her words identifies how exclusive practices can be used through policies and upheld systematically.
Many of us know that Critical Race Theory is a hot topic that the political right has twisted as a way to hide the unpleasantries of the American past. In this article, Goodridge provides CRT as a lens to see our work in corporate spaces. She defines it this way,
“The canon of Critical Race Theory shifted the understanding of racism from intentional hatred by individual actors to a set of systems and institutions that produce racial inequality and subordination.”
She goes on to say that the racial construct of professionalism shows up in two distinct ways –
- professionalism is measured by how well a person adapts to a hostile work environment is in of itself a racial construct because that system is built for people of color to fail
- professionalism incorporates the ideology to have thick skin manifests as a racial construct because even the definition of thick skin aligns with who holds the most power
When we look at how we define ‘professionalism’ within our organizations, what does it consider? What do we ask of our historically excluded employees that we don’t ask of others?
Every day, I meet with a client or potential client, asked to brush off microaggressions or try to manage a hostile manager. Or as I was once told by my HR business partner, ‘get over it.’ Many, if not all, are seen as the problem by their company leaders. Their communication or interpersonal skills are often in question. In essence, they all lacked professionalism.
But what if we reverse the roles? Would we have the same responses? Are the hostile behaviors tolerated or explained as part of the organization’s unique culture? I can tell you from experience – that nothing would change. I’ve experienced drunk white sales guys cussing out the founder at a company event. This same guy told me (the only Black woman on the team) that racism only came back with Obama. Not only was he protected (his boss and skip level were at the same table), I was told that’s just how he is. No one questioned his professionalism in either situation.
Many organizations are undergoing a culture change in the aftermath of the summer of 2020. The data (which hasn’t changed) shows that the historically excluded’s experiences are different from those who have had a seat at the table. Company policies are being reviewed with a lens of equity, and many of the wrongs are being corrected (i.e., The Crown Act). But as we look at these policies, let’s not forget to take a step back and redefine professionalism, what it is and what it isn’t, and determine how we will hold everyone to the same standards and not just a select few.
In this conversation with Adriana Crawford, we unpack professionalism and executive presence, and what it looks like for one may not be the same for another. And as we ask people to show up as their authentic selves, do we provide a few ‘rules for the road.’
Where can you find Ariana?
Looking for support for your organization’s efforts? Schedule your consultation with The Equity Equation today – https://theequityequationllc.com/dei-consultation/
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