Professional vs. Professionalism: Setting boundaries for your career

Late-night parties, campus crushes and exam-cramming aside, being a post-secondary student comes with some pretty serious implications. University – a medium between our cozy routines as dependents and the “real-world” – can be a very formal space in which we are expected to be our best and most professional selves, from what we wear on presentation day to how we write our research papers.

But what does it really mean to be professional? And how can we differentiate between helpful tips and harmful traditions rooted in the concept of "professionalism"? I just threw a really big word at you, so let me define it: professionalism is a discriminatory code of conduct dictating how one must behave or present themselves in the workplace and other formal spaces.

Simply being professional looks like showing up to an interview or shift as early as you feel you need; using respectful language, like honouring someone’s preferred pronouns; or operating in inclusive and accessible ways, like asking about everyone's dietary needs before ordering lunch.

On the other hand, professionalism can exist on a spectrum. On one end, it looks like being asked to cover tattoos, or valuing extroverted personalities while viewing introverted ones as invalid. On the other end, it can look like accent discrimination, being asked to remove a hijab, or being told to dismantle braids or dreadlocks in school or work.

Sadly enough, professionalism also seeks to dictate your emotions. Historically, and to this day, women’s emotions have been devalued as hysterical or dramatic. Professionalism is the jerk that says, “Get over it", “Stop being dramatic,” and “Why are you even upset?”, and these statements are heard everywhere from the boardroom to the break room.

Further, being a woman of colour often means having your emotions immediately read as angry or violent. But here’s the thing: why shouldn’t women be sad or angry and be able to express it? Professionalism will have you believe that being mistreated and exposed to gender-based harassment and violence should only be met with a calm, pacifying response from those victimizied so as not to disrupt the environment. As women and gendered minorities have been calling out for ages, discrimination is the disruptor, not the survivors.

Image courtesy of @frizzkidart. Teal background with two femme heads facing opposite directions with yellow flowers behind their heads. Text reads, "You don't have to apologize for who you are".

I work at Learning Skills and Development on campus with students who may be going through hard times academically and personally. They may cry during our appointments or express harmful thoughts and feelings. In these instances, I empathize because I’ve been there and they are not alone. I offer tissues, water, space to just breathe or listen, and, if necessary, referrals to the Wellness Center or other resources.

I am there for them as a human being because there’s no skipping over that part. We feel, want and need things. In being professional, you can make room for these things to exist, whereas professionalism intends to squander, suppress and ignore.

There is a clear difference between these two concepts. Professionalism is one of the many branches that sneakily upholds major discriminatory systems like racism or sexism.

It is crucial to understand that being professional and being human are not mutually exclusive. You do not have to shave your head, cover your tats, or remove your religious garments for a job, for a person, for a degree, for anyone or anything. Ask yourself: do I really want to work or study somewhere that takes measures to ensure my personhood is suppressed? The simple answer? No.

Image courtesy of @frizzkidart. Purple background with two raccoons, one in an autumn tree. Text reads, "Set your boundaries and communicate them".