What It Actually Means to Be "Professional," According to 7 Professionals

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May 28, 2024 at 7:34AM UTC

Professional conduct. Professional attire. A sense of professionalism.

“Professional” is common jargon in the working world, but definitions about what professional actually means are much less standard. For some, it means pantsuits and signing off emails with “best regards.” For others, the traditional definitions and stereotypes are outdated — and they’re set on ushering in a new era of what being professional at work should really mean.

“‘Professional’ was what old white men deemed the standard,” wrote an anonymous Fairygodboss member on the community feed. “You weren’t allowed to bring your personality to work. The younger generations want to see that you’re a person, not a corporate robot, so tattoos, purple hair, or workout pants show off who you are. I’ve found my customers (internal or external) treat me so much kinder when they’ve seen a little bit of personality.”

Another anonymous Fairygodboss member agreed, noting that as the workforce has changed — from everything from more diversity to remote working — professionalism has changed, too.

“I think ideas about professionalism are definitely changing and I’m so thankful,” they wrote. “I think it is partly because of the pandemic, but more so because we’re finally pushing back on the idea that the only measure of professionalism is a cishet white man.”

These Fairygodboss members point out that “professionalism,” originally, was an exclusionary term — one that only fit the model for traditional white businessmen. Instead of changing the idea of professionalism as more non-white, non-male people joined the workforce, many people have instead tried to fit a standard that wasn’t created for them — worrying that they’d lose out on job opportunities or even get fired if they didn’t.

And in trying to fit some antiquated, patriarchal idea of “professionalism,” many people have felt disconnected to work. Others feel like they can’t be their true selves without repercussions. And it’s not as if trying to be professional isn’t grueling enough.

“To a degree, the very idea of ‘professionalism’ requires some emotional labor,” writes Whizy Kim in their Refinery 29 article “The Humiliation Under Capitalism.” “When your boss gives you extremely upsetting news, it would be considered unprofessional to react emotionally — to react honestly.”

Whether it’s hiding emotions, true personality traits or even how you really wear your hair, traditional ideas of professionalism aren’t always inclusive, and can control not only how people behave at work, but also idealize a certain type of speech, look and manner — and exclude everyone who doesn’t fit the arbitrary standard.

Luckily, all definitions of professionalism aren’t limited to the same ones we had in the mid 20th century. Instead, some professionals take an alternative route to defining professionalism — focusing on qualities and work output rather than a clothing requirement.

“My view is that professionalism is exhibited in a person who knows when to speak and when to listen, when to challenge and when to submit, and when to lead and when to be a team player,” writes Penny Clarke, program director of BSc Accounting at Manchester Business School.

Neil MacIntosh, a marketing strategist, echos Clarke, mentioning that reliability, competence, integrity and honesty are key factors of what makes someone professional

Fairygodboss members agreed, too — that what someone’s output is more important than the traditional factors — especially in a more remote, digitally connected workforce.

“Since so much of our professional space is digital I tend to not worry as much about dress and more about the work that is being done,” writes Executive Director Christy Schwartz. 

“There’s so much seriousness and unrest in the world [right now]. I believe lightening up a bit helps build [a] relationship and connect with your team or client,” writes Chynise Cunningham, a Talent Acquisition Manager, Diversity and Inclusion.

Professionalism isn’t one way of looking, speaking or signing off your emails. It’s a combination of traits that show that we’re dedicated to our work and respectful of our colleagues and clients. As our workplace changes, let’s allow our definition of professionalism to change too — so more of our workforce can be seen as their true selves while also being seen as professional at work.


This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.

Zoe Kaplan is a Staff Writer & Content Strategist at Fairygodboss.

What does professionalism mean to you? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss members!

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