“Professionalism” and Other Barriers to Entry

At this time of year, many of us are wading into the murky waters of the job hunt . This can be a daunting prospect, especially for those of us vying for limited positions or trying to convey how our LIS education and experience translate to an alternative industry. It is an especially discouraging process for anyone who doesn’t fit into the narrow representation of what a “professional” looks like and how a potential employee should behave.

A few years ago, a friend of mine was holding an interim position as a department manager within a city agency. She was exceptional in her job. She developed great working relationships with the other staff and volunteers and she built successful relationships with community partners. She had the rare ability to understand the big-picture workings of the industry’s system, and she was able to orchestrate the day-to-day flow so that both the overall agency and the individuals within it prospered.

She was also a queer, non-binary POC. Even with a solid, two-year track-record in the position and excellent numbers to support the effective work she had done, she was told she would not be considered for the permanent position. Why? Her supervisor said her co-workers found her “difficult”. Odd, considering each of her colleagues voiced their outrage at the decision in a meeting held to announce the news.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, she began to wonder if she was difficult. After all, what else could explain her removal from a position that her education, expertise, and experience prepared her to do so thoroughly well? Her work was never faulted—she was talented, disciplined, and beyond reproach. It was her “professionalism” that was brought into question.

After she left the position—one that for her was arranged as independent contractor (meaning she was taxed as self-employed and had no health insurance or benefits)—it was converted into a city job and bestowed with all of the security and sick-leave, remuneration, and access to healthcare she never received. It was also given to a cis-gendered, white person. A person who was far less experienced and did not hold nearly the same level of education or expertise.

She left the job in 2013, but my friend is still paying off the tax she accrued to the IRS. Each month she faithfully repays a student-loan-sized bill to pay off her education—in this case, an education in the inequality of the workplace. An even bigger burden than the financial weight, however, was the impact of the gaslighting she endured. She began to doubt herself and her own self-worth.

This is the cost, as people who engage in the job seeking process, of buying into the idea of “professionalism”. Professionalism is a word used to describe acceptable appearance and behavior in the workplace. It is a vague term that conjures an image of a set of standards. Those standards are overwhelmingly white, generally cis-male, and definitely heteronormative.

 “Professionalism is a funny term, because it masquerades as neutral despite being loaded with immense oppression. As a concept, professionalism is racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, imperialist and so much more — and yet people act like professionalism is non-political.” –Jacob Tobia

This is an especially important topic as we see a resurgence of gender and racial essentialism in the cultural sphere. The very purpose of the concept of professionalism is to keep groups of people out of certain jobs, away from power, and without financial resources. It has been used successfully in this country’s history to control behavior according to race, class, and gender presentation.

Although it doesn’t undo the trauma caused from such an experience, my friend has come to understand the systematic nature of what happened to her—it wasn’t the first time and it won’t be the last. But by recognizing that the problem didn’t sit with her, she was able to set down some of the burden she carried. More accurately, she was able to shift the burden from herself to where it belonged.

This is what I hope we can all do as we make ourselves vulnerable in the process of asking for employment. Veronica Arellano Douglas does a much better job of suggesting ways of engaging in self-care throughout the process than I ever could here. I hope too that we can remind ourselves that the challenges we face in securing employment are not about us personally. There is a system in place that often works against us, and all we can do is share our resources, support one another, and do our best to hack it.

Have you had similar experiences you would like to share?

Categories: Advocacy & Activism, Diversity

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12 replies

  1. Honestly, I’ve found this less of an issue in large urban areas. In smaller environments, looking different is a huge deal. In NYC, I interviewed dozens of people who had tattoos, multi-colored hair, body piercings, etc., not to mention people of every race, gender, orientation, etc. I especially remember one young Hispanic librarian who was heavily tattooed who whispered to me “Do you think So-and-so (who was Orthodox Jewish) was bothered by my tattoos?” I laughed and said “No, not at all. Here – let me introduce you to one of his favorite staff members.” I walked him around the library on the usual tour, and introduced him to our graphic designer – who had tattoos on her face, as well as many other visible areas. He relaxed. And yes, we hired the young man. I worked extra-hard to diversify our library in the 9 years I was there, and by the time I left, we had staff who were disabled, openly gay and bisexual, Hispanic, African-American, Asian/Pacific Islander, Chinese, Muslim, Jewish, and more. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a lot better than it had been 9 years earlier, and our staff looked much more like our students. Now I am in a small town in the Midwest, and diversifying our staff is much more challenging, but we have had a few successes. That said, I am certain people feel like they stand out more here – this small town is about 80% white and Protestant, though with a growing Somali Muslim community.

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    • Hi Stephanie,

      Thanks for your comment and for sharing the work you did to diversify your library. I’m always hopeful when I read books like “This is What a Librarian Looks Like” in addition to hearing comments like yours. Making those choices on the hiring end is really what it all comes down to. I love this quote since it sums it up so well: “If you do not intentionally include, you unintentionally exclude.”–Neil Lenane, Business Leader of Talent Management and 23-year veteran at Progressive. I wish that most situations echoed your experience–especially the urban environment. The story told here, and many others not included in the article, took place in San Francisco.

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      • Wow – San Francisco. Well, just because I have seen more diversity in large cities, that doesn’t mean that all environments are welcoming. Sigh. We have a long way to go in this profession.

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  2. Another factor to consider with regard to your friend’s situation is that it was a position in a municipal government. Perhaps I am jaded by growing up in the Chicago area (and having worked my first job in government), but the reason that your friend wasn’t selected for the permanent position could have simply been politics and patronage. She may not have worked with the correct politicians; perhaps she didn’t get the correct endorsements. She may have also simply been too good at her job. I was regularly chastened by co-workers for “working too hard” and “making them look bad”. I learned very quickly that having a political sponsor is far more important than how good your work is — and getting that sponsorship meant dropping cash into someone’s campaign fund, buying tickets, and “volunteering” on their campaign.

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    • Hi Patrick,

      You make an interesting point about access and how it keeps people from participating in power and in employment. In the case of the person in this story, she was middle management, and not dealing at the same level as her supervisor and the ED like you described. Although the reasons for the employment decisions were left up to the reader’s imagination in the article, your point about how it makes decision-makers appear hits the nail on the head. Politics and patronage–and who is allowed to participate–is exactly the issue here. When this story is multiplied by the millions of ongoing occurrences, it creates a process of systematic exclusion.

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  3. I once attended an informational hiring panel where several professionals who made hiring decisions answered questions and gave advice to students. One comment that stuck out with me, and something that everyone on the panel agreed with, was that when it comes down to two, equally qualified candidates, they were going to hire based on fit. “Fit” was based on feelings. Would this person “fit” into the culture of the workplace? Did they “fit” with their idea of a good candidate? I find this secret criteria problematic, and I think the idea of cultural fit and professionalism work together to exclude good candidates. Anyway, thank you for your post. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately because there is a lot of privilege in the library job search.

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    • Hi Melissa,

      That’s such an important point! A lot of research (as well as personal experience like yours) highlights the general practice of hiring people like ourselves. Here, “fit” means “like me” or “makes me feel comfortable”. Thanks for sharing this.

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      • And this “fit” business is nonsense, and yes, code for “like us.” My rule of thumb is if it comes down to two finalists who could both do the job, try to prefer the person who is not “like us” unless there is a clear problem (eg. we once had a finalist who was utterly opposed to tenure – a problem in our university, since he would have had to pursue it). I’ve been excluded based on “fit” myself, more than once.

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    • This is a great post! I think the notion of “fit” and using it as a criteria in hiring is absolutely biased and anti-diversity. I wrote a post on the topic two years ago and I feel even more strongly about it now than I did then https://meredith.wolfwater.com/wordpress/2015/09/28/the-insidious-nature-of-fit-in-hiring/. Yes, professionalism can also mean things like “does their job,” “communicates well,” and “doesn’t show up to work drunk” but too often it’s used to exclude people who don’t fit based on the majority culture in the organization.

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  4. This is an interesting article and I feel for your friend. As someone who has been in the hiring seat, I will say that for me, “professionalism” is about attributes like competency, honesty, integrity, accountability, respect, and ability to communicate, versus how someone looks! So I don’t think that having the expectation of an employee being “professional” in that context, is unreasonable. My point is, the word itself isn’t bad – it’s all in the interpretation. I would also say, as a mid-career librarian, I have seen something else – ageism – which can be a barrier to entry as well.

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  5. I’m struck by how narrowly this post defines professionalism. From above:

    “Professionalism is a word used to describe acceptable appearance and behavior in the workplace. It is a vague term that conjures an image of a set of standards. Those standards are overwhelmingly white, generally cis-male, and definitely heteronormative.”

    Certainly, there have to be SOME standards for a profession to exist. I don’t deny cultural, ethnic, and gender-based homogeny exists. But, what happens if we eliminate standards outright?

    I guess my point is that the author can’t be arguing no standards should exist in LIS whatsover? And, if they aren’t, how should we determine them?

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