June 14, 2005

Word for the day: professional

I always feel a little itchy when someone talks about acting professional or looking professional or wanting to appear professional. I think it's because on my campus, the word is sometimes used as some sort of weapon, a way to keep progressive thinkers in line.

Professional sometimes means conforming to the way we've always done things in this profession. No new ideas, new perspectives, or new ways of thinking allowed.

"No, you can't do that. It just wouldn't be professional."

Junior faculty are not supposed to question that line of thinking. I think they should. I love it when new young faculty bring in new ways of doing things, new ways of teaching, even new ways of dressing. I hate it when all the energy get stamped down by old-timers sneering and saying, "That new professor just isn't very professional."

A retired colleague who was one of the first women ever hired on our campus says that in her early days, her chair would tell her that she was not dressing "professionally." When she finally questioned what this meant, she was told that looking professional meant wearing a suit and tie. This was in the days before stores even carried suits for women. A suit was something found in the men's department. Often the word professional means: looking and acting like a white man in navy blue suit.

On my campus the word professional almost always means acting in ways that would be traditionally considered masculine. (I'm not essentializing here - I'm talking about the socially constructed category of masculine.) Wearing a tie is professional. Wearing a skirt is not. A short haircut is professional. Long hair is not. Carrying a briefcase is professional. Carrying a purse is not. Acting cold and distant with students is professional. Acting nurturing and supportive is not. Always acting like an expert is professional. Admitting that you don't have all the answers is not. Asking questions that really just show off your own knowledge is professional. Asking questions that you are curious about is not. Acting calm and rational is professional. Being passionate about your work or openly emotional is not.

I worry that we are not moving fast enough to change our concept of what professional means. It's not just the academy; it's the larger community as well. We still vote for politicians who look like .... white men in navy blue suits. Howard Dean gives an enthusiastic yell at a rally and his political career is over. Hilary Clinton is bashed incessantly in my conservative community, not for her political stances, but for the way she wears her hair or what goes on in her marriage. I asked my students last semester - and these are college students in the northeast, a fairly enlightened population - if they could even envision the country electing a president who didn't fit the image of the white heterosexual male. Sadly, they said no.


Overread said...

I am currntly looking at a place to do my PhD, and I am terrified, well, maybe aprehensive is a better word, about ending up in a place that emphasizes that kind of masculine 'professional' vibe. The big problem is that I can do that - pretty well too, but I'm a bit worried that I would - just to make life easier for myself. And that's sad.

Oliver said...

Professional is an outdated term in education now - 'oldschool' for want of a better word ;)

Don't pay any attention to all that BS - I've just graduated, and my best tutors were the ones with original and innovative ideas, who were not afraid to say "well, the way they've done it in the past was crap, so we're going to do something a little different". Education isn't all about facts and figures, I think the most important skill I learnt was my approach to problem solving, and the more creative the approach, the better in my opinion.

These profs and other people who frown at your approach are on their way out - this is a new century and 'professional' ain't gonna cut it anymore.

PPB said...

As a staff member, they tell us what constitutes professional dress (although I will add that their directions are not very gender biased IMHO). It always ticks me off to have someone tell me things that I think I know.

Anyway, I have a photo on my desk of myself when I was a teacher (It's a photo of my whole family, I'm not that self absorbed). I was wearing a floppy bow tie, buttondown, navy blazer, grey trousers and loafers. I had a short haircut, and was carrying this suitcase like briefcase. (I met up with them after a conference in their area) I remember feeling really grown up and professional in that outfit. A student saw it the other day and asked if everybody dressed in drag in the 80s.

I thought it was the only way I'd be taken seriously.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

I think there is a lot to be said in favor of the word "professional", even though I agree with everything you said.

A job is said to undergo "professionalization" when it acquires a self-governing, standard-setting body typically with a code of ethics. Medicine became professionalized in the 19th century with the establishment of the AMA. Shortly thereafter engineering was professionalized, with the creation of a number of professional organizations. (As I recall, the professionalization of engineering was in part a response to boilers on steam engines that kept blowing up.)

Key to this aspect of professionalization is that idea that professionals have ethical obligations attached to their office that go above and beyond the law. Most of these involve guaranteeing a certain quality of service. Many others involve things like not fucking your patients, building bridges that don't collapse (even if the client is concerned *only* with getting the job done cheaply).

A lot of a professional code of ethics relates to upholding the image of the profession. In practice, this means exactly what you were complaining about, looking like a white guy in a suit.

But here's the thing of it: professions rely on public trust. Professionals have expertise their clients do not, and require clients to do things that make them uncomfortable--like showing their financial records or taking off their clothes. For this relationship to work, there needs to be a minimal background of trust. Your doctor may be arrogant, but you assume he would get his license revoked if he felt you up. It would be nice to figure out how to create this background of trust without having to look like a white male.

We academics have one of the most effective guild systems imaginable when it comes to providing things like job security (for the tenured insiders). We don't spend much time talking about our own professional responsibilities.

The American Philosophical Association does not have a code of ethics, even though philosophers spend time analyzing the codes of ethics of other professions. How ironic is that.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

I take that last bit back. Although the APA does not have a "code of ethics" they do have a number of "Official Statements." I've actually invoked their statement regarding the rights of job candidates in the past.

I think my general point still stands.

Lucy said...

what's odd is that apparently trouser suits are not considered "professional" enough for women at job interviews. I guess a skirt's supposed to balance out the masculinity you need to get the job so you don't intimidate the employer too much?

Yankee T said...

This is a very good post, jo(e). I have always been lucky enough to work in gender-blind industries. Actually, they have been female-dominated industries. The word "professional" has not been so masculine-ized in my world, but I certainly see its influence all around me.

the lawmom said...

I don't disagree with all that you say here by any means, but I have to say I don't really understand why so many professors dress so poorly and seem to relish their ability to dress so. Dressing professionally to some extent shows respect for yourself, your students and your colleages. Law professors, men and women, are almost always in what you would call professional dress for class (not neccessarily a suit, but generally a jacket, an ironed shirt and shoes you probably wouldn't work in the yard with) and I think it sets a tone in a class that the professor takes it seriously.

profsynecdoche said...

Lawmom, I think professors dress poorly mostly because they can. It's kind a way a thumbing your nose at the establishment (like law professors!). It also plays into that whole eccentric genius thing: I'm too brilliant to be worried about whether my socks match.

Mostly, though, when I talk with graduate students about "professionalism," I try to emphasize the idea of a profession as a way of conceiving of their activities as belonging to a broader enterprise, or enterprises. The emphasis on ethics mentioned in an earlier comment is part of this conception, and so is the communication that takes place among the members of a profession. Learning to be a professional, then, is not learning how to dress, but learning the standards of conduct -- and how you can engage in dialogue so that you can change them for the better. I agree that there's a very masculine history of the term, but that's something that (I think) some people in my profession have begun to realize and to address.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

As I mentioned in a comment on an earlier post, the competition to see who can look like they care the least about how they look doesn't really take off until you get to the tenured professors at reasearch universities. At that level, the only aspect of professionalist people think about is communication with other high level members of their profession. Also, the only thing they want to communicate is "I am smarter than you."

And, oh, the beards you see on those people!

Graduate students also often dress like crap, because they retain the wardrobe of students, and are only taught to emulate the academic research elite.

The vast, chastened middle--the adjuncts, perpetual job seekers, and anyone whose student evaluations count for something--we still have to dress professionally. And try to guess what that actually is.

the lawmom said...

profsynecoche, I think you are exactly right to talk about professionalism in a broad context. I just think how you choose to present yourself to your students and colleagues is part of that. That and I'm annoyed that sometimes academic types think that if you do spend any time thinking about clothes or fashion you must not have room in your head for anything else.

~profgrrrrl~ said...

What an interesting entry. Ugh, professional dress. I actually like dressing in a suit and heels (which is far from required by my job, even at conferences), but insist on doing it with a twist. The pink hair, for example ...

If such dress were required, though, I'm guessing I would hate it and fight back.

I really dislike the implication (which I've seen a lot) that women who are friendly on the job are not professional. Friendly men can be professional, but friendly women are overly social. Professional women are bitches, right?

liz said...

There's a pretty good book called "The New Woman's Dress for Success" which talks about what to wear/what not to wear when trying to make impressions in various professions.

What's interesting is that the book is based on research, hundreds of interviews and discusses color, skirts v. pants, suit jackets, shoes, make-up, hair.

However, the book doesn't recommend dressing to change society. It is a summation of how society looks at women based on how they are dressed.

the lawmom said...

profgrrrl, yep, total bitches. did you see how mean I was over on scriv's blog today.

jo(e) said...

Rob: I agree with what you say about the necessity of professionalization. But the codes and standards need to be analyzed and re-investigated often because gender and race bias is embedded those codes.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...


Absolutely. What you say especially applies to the unwritten parts of codes and standards. Also, some professions make it a duty to keep up with the latest techniques, so that professionalization becomes a tool for fostering new perspectives, not squelching them. We do a good job of this in our research, but not in any other aspect of academe.

KathyR said...

One of my favorite law professors wore the jacket & tie & slacks thing. With them he wore brown socks in brown sandals. It was Davis, after all.

Rana said...

My problem with professional clothing (and appearance expectations more generally) is that it is (a) expensive and (b) uncomfortable.

I can completely understand the argument that people should _look_ competent and that dressing in a tidy, non-offensive way is probably a good idea if you are going to be interacting with members of the public.

BUT. I do not understand why wearing comfortable pants means I am a less competent employee than one who wears lined skirts and pantyhose. Or why a modest embroidered blouse is a sign that I am less able to do my job in a way that a dry-clean-only silk blouse with shoulder pads is not. Or why leather clogs are less appropriate than leather pumps, or Birkenstock sandals are less appropriate than open-toed stillettoes. (About the only exception I've found is in the form of long, loose-waisted dresses -- but even then, it's not okay in high-profession environments, like banking.)

Ditto hair. Ditto make-up. Always, the option that is more uncomfortable and expensive to maintain is the one that gets the gloss of "professionalism."

About the only exceptions I have seen to this are in, yes, academia, where a certain tweedy rumpledness seems expected, the trades, and in the arts.

If it's so important that one's workers present a specific acceptable image to the public, then provide the clothes, like they do for policemen and firefighters.

Songbird said...

I took myself out of the running for a position in a church where the senior pastor had blessed out the previous associate for dressing too casually, in his mind, when meeting with a family to plan a funeral. It was a hot summer day, and she was wearing a sleeveless linen dress from LLBean. He told her she looked like she was headed to the beach. Shortly after that, she resigned, for that reason among others.
I don't know how I would survive in a church that expected heels, hose and a navy blazer every day, as some seem to. But I don't think that anyone in my church thinks I'm unprofessional, although as I say, in some places I guess it would seem that way.

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

I'd like to see a world where professionalism is a state of mind that honors both student and teacher, healthcare worker and patient, lawyer and client, etc. Professionalism could mean intelligence, curiosity, hardwork, dedication, honorable behavior (where honorable means respectful and thoughtful), approapriate kindness and courtesy, supportive generous choices. Professionalism could come to mean something totally different than a dress code that disrespects individuality.

On the other hand, I do think certain things are highly unprofessional: teachers having sex with young students, for example. When I was a student, "professional" white male teachers I personally knew were doing that--with their white shirts, ties, and jackets.

BrightStar said...

I'm often paranoid that I'm not professional enough. When I'm feeling "unprofessional" it's probably not so. For example, I felt unprofessional when I cried in a research team meeting. But it was in January, a mere 5 or 6 months after finishing grad school and starting my new job, and I knew the other three people in the meeting very well. I now see my tears having played a role of breaking down some personal boundaries that allow us to speak more freely about everything -- research ideas and ourselves. I think it's time to not consider that incident unprofessional.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

When I was a student, "professional" white male teachers I personally knew were doing that--with their white shirts, ties, and jackets.

They didn't even get undressed? The cads! :)

Elizabeth said...

Hi, Jo(e).

bloglines was acting up and burped out this old post in your feed. Four years later, your last paragraph takes my breath away, and reminds me to be grateful for the ways in which the world has changed, even if it hasn't changed as much as I want it to.