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  1. Blog
  2. Culture & Professionalism
  3. April 4, 2023

The Perils of ‘Professionalism’: How Dress Codes at Work Discriminate & Exclude

It’s high time to redefine expectations of how employees show up to work

Black woman with natural hair
Photo courtesy of Leighann Blackwood

There’s no denying that many of us have felt pressure to fit into a certain mold at work—worrying about whether our appearance aligns with the implicit or explicit dress codes of the corporate world. And, let’s be all the way real, that pressure isn’t just about dressing for success; it’s about conforming to a certain arbitrary standard of what society generally deems “professional.”

I can vividly remember the first time I felt anxious about my appearance for a job. It was back in 2012 when I was preparing to land my first big role after graduating college. While it’s natural for a fresh-out-of-senior-seminar and novice adult to feel some degree of nervousness about their qualifications, my biggest fear once I secured an in-person interview was that my transitioning natural coils would take me out of the running for the role. And unfortunately, this was just the beginning of my struggles to be accepted for who I truly am in the workplace. The first time I worked up the courage to wear braids into the corporate building of a global tech company where I used to work, I had a panic attack. It still pains me to think about it, because ultimately, it felt like at that moment I was making a choice between being authentically me or staying the course of least resistance to elevate my career.

Sadly, more than a decade later, for myself and for others, that feeling isn’t uncommon. Still, many employees are made to feel like they need to conform and suppress their individuality or heritage in order to fit in. In many cases, that feeling stems from workplace grooming or dress code guidelines that reinforce outdated and exclusionary definitions of “professionalism.” And in other cases, it’s culturally reinforced, and employees know that if they don’t “fit the mold,” there will likely be consequences. 

It’s up to companies to recognize these harmful and often discriminatory patterns, and to create inclusive environments where all employees feel valued and accepted for who they are. The first step in doing so is unpacking what “professionalism” really means—and reassessing how employees show up based on that new understanding.

Understanding “professionalism” and its effects on marginalized employees 

While it’s true that we’ve seen more conversation around inclusivity in recent years, there’s still a long way to go. Despite our best efforts, discrimination and bias are ever present in many aspects of our lives, particularly in the workplace.

“That’s because the default norms of professionalism are still based on Eurocentric and heteronormative standards,” says Erica Kim, future of work and learning advisor, “What that looks like, for example, is a default habit of picturing a white man when someone asks you to envision a doctor because that’s the majority norm that we have been taught to think about as the standard of utmost prestige and professionalism. So now, when I hear ‘professional’ as an adjective, I wonder, is that a proxy for something else? What standard are you really referring to?”

A 2019 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review on Human Rights unpacks the bias of professional standards by highlighting that “professionalism has become coded language for white favoritism in workplace practices.” Simply put, being “professional” often places restrictions on how one should look, and commonly measures up to 1950s Western white-collar ideals—from suit and tie, skirt and pantyhose, to straightened hair.

The 2023 CROWN Workplace Research Study conducted as part of Dove and LinkedIn’s commitment to helping pass The CROWN Act, which would prohibit race-based hair discrimination, is a sobering reminder that many Black women still feel the pressure to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards in order to be taken seriously in the workplace. In fact, more than 60 percent of Black women surveyed in the study said they had changed their hair to be more “presentable” for a job interview—and more concerning, 25 percent of respondents had reason to believe that they’d been denied job opportunities because of their hairstyles.

This is a challenge to which Misty Wilson, national diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) advocate and consultant, relates closely. Hair has always been a topic of attention for her in the workplace. Even once voted in superlatives as “Most Likely to Break Dress Code”, she’s found that her tresses attracted conversation even more than what she wore.

“The biggest issue early on in my career when it comes to an outward expression of discrimination was about my hair,” Wilson says, “So much so, that when I finally worked up the courage go natural, I can remember being so nervous that my eyes began welling up in tears before I walked into the office. And what I learned is that as much as companies may say they’re accepting of various cultures, there actually wasn’t much acceptance of Black culture.” 

Cultural discrimination, particularly against women, is a widespread issue around the world. From the office to the sidewalk, women face social hostility and harassment on a daily basis because of how they choose to present themselves. According to Pew Research, this is especially true for women who belong to Eastern ethnic or religious groups as they recurrently experience prejudice when their style of dress is deemed too religious or too secular. 

Furthermore, as the idea of “professionalism” is heavily influenced by a narrow demographic of white-collar Baby Boomers, anyone who doesn’t fit into this antiquated mold—often BIPOC and LGBTQ+ individuals—is automatically marginalized and pressured to conform to rigid standards of not only dress but behaviors. It’s the reason why more than 51 percent of LGBTQ+ workers feel the need to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity at work to this day, fearing that showing up in wholeness may negatively impact how they are treated and evaluated by colleagues and superiors.

What happens when “professionalism” becomes “dress codes”

What does showing up as a professional really mean? This is the question that Wilson challenges all employers to ask themselves as a first step toward progress in the workplace.

“Because whatever idea you have in your head, whatever preconceived bias you have—it needs to go away,” she says, “Professionalism isn’t a way that you look, it’s what you do. Look it up in the dictionary—it’s an action. A state of being. Not a style of dress.” Her words ring true as, defined in Webster’s Dictionary, to be professional refers to ethical conduct, and “exhibiting courteous, conscientious, and generally business-like manner in the workplace.” It has nothing to do with what an employee chooses to wear.

Both Kim and Wilson point out that the narrow spectrum of acceptability that dress codes represent is typically associated with privileged people who have had the luxury of creating workplace models that allow them to feel most comfortable. Business Insider defines this as the legacy of elites.

“When these rules were set, how many BIPOC or outwardly identifying LGBTQ+ employees were in positions of leadership? Not many. And even if they were, they felt the need to conform because traditionally, if you wanted to work a white-collar job you had to align with the ideas of professionalism as set by white men.” Wilson says. “In fact, if we really look at this from a historical context, ‘codes’ have always meant to marginalize or keep people from doing a specific thing.”

Read more: Code-Switching: How Marginalized Employees Navigate Oppression at Work

From 9-5 and beyond, underrepresented groups are often expected to mold themselves to a standard that may not align with their personal identity or cultural norms. Policies around dress and grooming are frequently a hotbed for sexist, stigmatizing, marginalized gender exclusive, ableist, sizeist, and culturally invalidating language. Such verbiage is incredibly damaging because it sends the message that who we are as individuals is unacceptable.

“I have and still do feel a pressure to present physically as older and more masculine because as an Asian American woman, I have more youthful facial features that can seem a lot younger,” Kim says. As a result, there have been times when she has shied away from wearing certain colors, styles, or makeup, and deepened her voice in order to be taken seriously and avoid judgment about whether or not she’s meant to be in the room. “We really need to interrogate why things like this feel or don’t feel professional. Dress codes should be more about function—what’s most comfortable, makes you feel most creative, or the most productive. Traditional views of how one should show up to the workplace are so limiting.”

As we continue to see a more diverse workforce with women, Gen Z, and individuals of various races and identities stepping into leadership roles, Kim believes that we will finally experience a greater, more far-reaching change.

To get there, Wilson says, “Everything needs to be re-evaluated, including the language that we’re using in this discussion. There should be no dress codes. There should be no professionalism.”

Creating inclusive guidelines for showing up to work

The question that lingers for most employers is: How can we maintain an environment with employees who show up to work appropriately without setting “dress codes”? 

The solution for that is actually quite simple in theory: Create guidelines that prioritize self-governance over wardrobe.

Company policies can evolve to strip away rooted appearance bias by deciding to trust their employees with autonomy and good judgment. And while there may be some apprehension to adopting that practice for sales and client-facing environments, there’s actually evidence that shows checking off the traditional box of “professional attire” may create more distance than comfort among customers.

“When you’re re-examining your employee handbooks, and specifically dress codes, you’ll begin to uncover areas of exclusion and recognize what ties it has to broader society. I don’t think you can ever separate that,” Kim says. “So on a concrete level, I recommend removing all gendered language and using more specificity to describe what is acceptable. Allow employees to choose what enables them to work comfortably, think creatively, be more productive, and move flexibly.”

Employee guidelines don’t have to be overly complicated or specific to dress. What it all boils down to is maintaining an environment of basic decency and respect.

“When thinking about how employees should show up to work, let’s start here: ‘We are nice. We are accommodating. We are inclusive.’ If it’s illegal to do a certain thing, don’t do it!” Misty says, “This is really just common sense.”

Ultimately, the future of work is about building a workplace culture that inspires creativity, fosters growth, and values every person for their unique strengths and qualities. And when it comes to dressing for success, it isn’t about conforming to a rigid set of rules, but rather feeling accepted and valued for who we are. 

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