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  • Writer's picturekatrice horsley

Why we should deconstruct the story of 'professional'.



This photo was taken by my friend Åsa Sunderlin - I like it as I feel it captures a lot of who I am, yet I would be hesitant to use it to promote myself or my work - why? The answer is because it is not 'professional' enough and this is what I want to talk about today; who decides what professional is.


There is a belief that if we want to be taken seriously in our work we need to be professional and manifest that. That does not just include behaviour, it includes image - the way we look. Often, for a woman that will involve wearing 'corporate clothing,' not emphasising our breasts, (yet often times being expected to wear shoes with a higher heel,) wearing more muted colours and being 'tidy', manicured, and neat. With men, (depending on the culture,) it may involve wearing a suit, a tie and again being neat and tidy with clean, ironed clothes. I Googled 'Professional people' and the image below is what I got - (it seems crossing your arms when you pose is also professional.) Look at the images. You can see some cultural diversity yet you cannot see anybody who has visible disabilities, nobody would be deemed 'overweight,' nobody in a sari or hijab or dupatta, nobody who looks like they have worked a 12 hours shift - God forbid that we look tired! This is the aspirational image of 'professional' yet it is just a story and one that excludes many people.


What do I mean by that?

We all know representation matters and I have written about it in the blog called The Imagined Self. If we cannot see ourselves in the images portrayed, it is more difficult for us to believe we can become those images. Whilst I know that we have really advanced in offering better representation overall, in certain areas this is sadly lacking. It is not just in representation of 'professionalism that there is an issue, poverty is also a huge factor. I remember going to an interview and needing to borrow a friends clothes because mine were to shabby. It should have been my skills and not my clothes that were being interviewed but sadly this was not the case and in many professions, it is still not the case. There is a vast array of research that highlights how we are judged within the first 7 seconds of an interview and our appearance is part of this. An article by Forbes states:


Dress and groom appropriately. This should go without saying, but people will judge you on your looks long before they judge your words or actions. ........ you can start off on the right foot by dressing appropriately for the event. While we all may wish there weren't expectations placed on our appearance in terms of professional events, the reality is that they are; small things like hair and makeup can actually nudge people to see you as more influential.


This is even more so for women where make-up, and hair play a much stronger role on creating an impression. Often curly hair is seen as 'unprofessional' with this disproportionally impacting women of colour.


So why am I telling you all of this? It is because it constantly informs our perceptions of ourself and others and essentially it is just another story - another social construct that enables some to succeed and others to not even begin. I was recently asked to talk at an event for the Society of Authors alongside two other fantastic women and the theme was 'the stories we tell ourselves.' It was aimed at authors and aspiring authors and focused on how to 'sell' ourselves and our work. Several of the questions from the participants were about professionalism and also soft skills v hard skills. Some of the participants felt they were not professional enough or lacked the hard skills needed to be successful. Again it made me question who decides these things and what lies behind these decisions. There are articles linking the concept of professionalism to white supremacy and 'the old boys club' and interestingly also articles showing that mainly marginalized groups of people value professionalism more — and are more likely to leave a job at an institution due to issues of professionalism — compared to their white, male counterparts.


So what does professionalism mean to you and why does it mean that? - It is a question that I think we should focus on.


Today I am going to record some videos promoting my new Narrative4Training course. I am already wondering what I will wear, how much make-up I will have on, how I will have my hair and part of me will be so furious that I cannot present myself as a 59 year old woman, free of make-up and wearing comfy clothing, which would by default mean without a bra - (but again God forbid that women acknowledge their breasts or nipples while still wishing to be seen as professional.) Yet, in order to have people sign up, in order to be seen as professional, organised and competent I feel that this is not possible - so I am writing about it here instead. I know, I am a coward.


For many of us, Covid forced us to become more 'personal' in the way we communicate. People were allowed into our homes, met our pets, sometimes saw us needing to receive deliveries or calling out to our children to play quietly. Covid forced us into a position of showing our 'humanness' and the world did not crumble. Yet still we hold onto an idea of what it is to be professional, how it looks, how it sounds and how it behaves. I believe we can, in fact we must be personal as part of being professional. It is our humanness, our vulnerability, our curiosity that enables us to create relationships, which are fundamental to all of us. I just read an amazing article by Iain McGilchrist where he states 'Left-brain thinking will destroy civilisation.' I actually think this is linked into our idea of professionalism being efficient, unemotional, impactful, definitely not playful but focused unerringly on 'getting the job done.' In the article he states:


The left hemisphere has a very narrow beam, targeted on a detail which it can see very precisely. It fixes it and grabs it (and the left hemisphere controls the right hand with which most of us do the grabbing and the getting). Whereas the right hemisphere has a broad, open, sustained vigilant attention, which is on the lookout for everything else without preconception. So on the one hand you’ve got an attention that produces a world of tiny fragments that don’t seem connected to one another — a bit here a bit there, a bit elsewhere — that are decontextualised, disembodied. Whereas with the right hemisphere we see that nothing really is completely separated from anything else — that ultimately, all this is on some level seamlessly interconnected, that it’s flowing and changing rather than fixed and static. Uniqueness is something the right hemisphere sees, while the left hemisphere sees just an example of something that it uses or needs. The right hemisphere is the world in which we live; the left hemisphere’s world is, if you like, a map, a schema, a diagram, a theory — something two dimensional. So we’ve got this one world, which is composed of things that are mechanical, useful, inanimate, reducible to their parts, abstracted, decontextualised, dead; and another world, which is flowing, complex, living, changing and has all the qualities that make life worth living.


I think our idea of what professional is and how it looks needs to be more governed by that right brain hemisphere - let it be more flowing and changing rather than fixed and static. Let it not only include all the complex living changes that make life worth living, let it also include all the complex, changing people who make life worth living.

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