What is professionalism?

This week I attended the launch of FemMentored, an online space for womxn of the charity sector to connect, network, and discuss the tools and resources we can use to achieve our own version of success.

In a breakout room led by Desiree D’Souza we heard from womxn in the sector who were uncomfortable with the powers they possess; the power to be themselves, to be seen as an expert, or to be privileged.

The discussion touched on how we struggle with balancing authenticity with professionalism and how work can be exhausting as we navigate which parts of ourselves we reveal to others.

And this got me thinking, what is “professionalism”?

In the group I shared that whilst I’m confident with my ‘power of charisma’ (showing my personality at work), northern stereotypes have held me back in work situations where I was told I was ‘too happy’ or ‘too friendly’ – read, ‘not professional enough’ in meetings to sit in silence.

And I’m not alone. A fellow northerner messaged to say they’d experienced similar treatment as they progressed in their career.

And we understand that as white women this is minor compared to what people of colour, people with disabilities, or other marginalised groups experience as they go about their day or progress in their careers.

I recently spotted The Halo Code, a campaign led by black students with the aim to destigmatise natural hair in schools.

Hair! Something so natural and personal to an individual, and something of which they have no control over its natural state, is governed by this word, ‘professional’.

So, back to my question. What is “professionalism”?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as ‘the combination of all the qualities that are connected with trained and skilled people’. Other simplified versions are ‘someone who earns a living performing an activity’.

These qualities are based on how well you do your job, can you be trusted, are you ethical – that kind of thing.

Nothing about race, regionality, religion, gender, class etc.

And nothing linked solely to 9-5 office roles where money or positions of authority are the biggest goal.

For example, you can be a creative and possess all of the qualities associated with this skill and still be a professional.

And yet as a sector, we’ve developed a mould where ‘professional’ means educated, well-spoken, well dressed, white, in positions of authority, and sometimes devoid of characteristics that upset the status quo.

We see being professional as something in spite of who we are, instead of because of it.

We’ve mixed ‘professional’ in with racism, sexism, classism etc. without appreciating that people can be professional by doing things their way, with their talent, and how they’re most comfortable.

Employees experience an internal battle of how much of themselves to share, instead of forging authentic connections where they can bring their full selves and have the biggest impact.

They second guess, worry, or burnout.

Or worse, the systemic structures that have been created by the same people who have created this ‘professional’ mould make it hard for those who don’t fit to progress, make a change, or feel welcome.

So how can we be more comfortable with our authentic selves; to merge personality with professionalism, bring our whole selves to work, and start to worry less about what others think?

It’s not a quick or easy ride, especially on that last one.

But it is changing.

We’re seeing new voices find a platform in the sector who want to change how we work and how we do things – more emphasis on authenticity, humanity, and connection over who has worked with who, or the background from which they’re from.

At Fundraising Everywhere‘s #BAMEOnline conference in July 2020 there was no code-switching, hierarchy or expectations on speakers or attendees.

Safe spaces like FemMentored allow a peek into the real conversations we want to have with each other where we drop our guard and say, ‘I feel like I’m not welcome and it’s affecting my work’, or realise that those people in positions of authority or seen to be ‘successful’ have their moments of self-doubt too.

And working from home in 2020 has allowed us to let more of our real selves seep through as the familiarity and comfortableness of our surroundings has removed the theatrics of office life and allowed us to contribute in ways that are right for us (even if that means not contributing at all).

Some other ways we can continue to break down our view of what ‘professional’ means are to,

  • be more open about our concerns, weaknesses, or failures
  • allow staff to use their own voice and their own way to do their job. If the job still gets done and is done well, that’s what matters
  • hire for talent and train the rest
  • let people dress for the situation; desk day = comfort, external meeting = smarten up
  • continue the benefits of remote-first working: accessible learning, remote hires, inclusive (and shorter) meetings
  • reflect on your own associations of what ‘professional’ means and where they’ve come from; is your need for an out-of-date mould a projection of your own insecurities or biases?
  • get involved with campaigns like Charity So White and Show the Salary

And to keep in mind my biggest takeaway from the event, ‘go where you’re celebrated, not where you’re tolerated’.

TLDR: professionalism and who you are aren’t two separate things. If you feel uncomfortable it’s because the structures or messaging around you make you feel this way to maintain how things work or what you do.

If we’re honest with each other, have meaningful connections and conversations, and collaborate more openly with people, we’ll have more meaningful experiences that will enrich what we do and how we do it.

My call to action for this blog is a plea to the sector to hold on to the learnings 2020 has taught us about vulnerability, connection, and humanity and to create a fairer space for all where people are celebrated, not tolerated.