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?