Professionalism be damned, it never suited me anyway!

A white man in a grey suit and blue shirt, is pointing at himself with both arms and making an odd exaggerated face.
Ok, I’m genuinely sorry to this man whoever you are but this is the image which comes up when you search ‘smug professional man’ and it was too good to resist.

Firstly, the fact we’re still having debates and discussions about whether employers should require videos to be on in meetings is both frustrating and eye-opening on how far we’ve yet to go with grasping hybrid working and disability inclusion.

Secondly, professionalism is something I love to pick apart. Mainly because it’s a place where ableism lurks but is often excused, ignored or explained (badly) away. But also because it sits at the intersection of so many other systemic issues like misogyny, racism, and classism.

The definitions of professionalism vary, but most tie into three things; standards, behaviour and responsibility. However there’s a bigger question at hand than understanding what it is.

Whose definition is it anyway?

Who’s defining professionalism? Or, more accurately, who has historically been defining what’s professional and what isn’t? Spoiler, it’s the same people who built the system. And that’s a problem because it was a system built to cater to a very narrow and specific section of society. Everyone else who has come into or worked under that system has had to fight for rights, access, pay, you name it. In short, we’ve had to mould ourselves to it, not the other way around.

“The modern professions were established in the mid-nineteenth century, when laws governing licensure granted a monopoly over practice, with a clear understanding that professions would be altruistic and moral and would address society’s concerns,” Cruess and colleagues have noted (J Bone Joint Surg 2000;82:1189-94).

National Library of Medicine article 2012

Professionalism and ableism

In terms of disability, professionalism is often code for ableism, holding disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent people to arbitrary standards declared by those in positions of power and privilege. Anything, or anyone which sits outside the corporate norm can be deemed unprofessional without much scrutiny.

Where disability is concerned we particularly see this in relation to appearance and reliability, and this is where the debate over videos on or off sits. The person with whom I had the difference of opinion claimed that “99% of the time it’s because people can’t be bothered to get dressed of do their hair.” So let’s look at that.

I have an energy-limiting chronic illness. It means I have around 3-4 good usable hours in a day to do all the things; work, household chores, showering, food shopping, socialising, etc. If I can take part in a meeting without using my limited battery to wash and or style my hair, put make up on, or even get out of bed or off the sofa because I can keep my camera off I am far more likely to be able to concentrate, do any follow up actions, or answer or ask questions. In short, I’ll be able to work better.

And this scenario can apply to so many others; neurodivergent people, those with social anxiety, those with caring responsibilities, people who are burnt out but still trying to function in the hellscape that is modern capitalism. The point is that whether my hair is done or not is irrelevant to the work I’m capable of doing. To suggest otherwise is nonsensical.

Time for a different approach

If we really think about it professionalism is nothing more than tradition. Traditions which in many cases reinforce outdated ideas and uphold barriers facing oppressed groups. I’ve struggled with professionalism my whole life, as someone who has had piercings, tattoos, brightly coloured hair on top of disability the rules set out have always felt, to me, like formalised personal opinions generated from years of outdated practices and diversity limiting beliefs.

As with all forms of progress there are those who favour tradition, those who will dig their heels in and denounce such progress as trends, as whining, as impractical or unworkable because it affords them more power or enables them to hold on to the power they’ve amassed.

However, rejection of professionalism is a growing movement. As Gen Z seeks a more rewarding working life, as oppressed groups refuse to participate in systems which perpetuate that oppression and as the pandemic’s home working fostered a kinder, more understanding acceptance and forgiveness of our individual situations, what’s considered professional is being dismantled in favour of something more inclusive, and ultimately, more human.

“In terms of disability, professionalism is often code for ableism, holding disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent people to arbitrary standards declared by those in positions of power and privilege.”


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