The case against professional assimilation

Expectations of professionalism in a workplace can make it difficult for people to fit in and even force some to adopt tactics to comply

Workplace culture, created and enforced by the employer and perpetuated by their employees, is the subject of more than just appearances. 

While forms of self-expression, like piercings, dyed hair and tattoos, have often been subject to stigma in the workplace, these aren’t the only elements that contribute to workplace culture. When there isn’t room for employees to express themselves without judgment without being seen as unprofessional, people are forced to assimilate.

When met with non-conformity, a typical work environment would perceive a person’s preferred mode of self-expression as an attention magnet, as if they’re trying too hard, as if they’re not serious about their job. Even in working-class jobs, an appearance-oriented standard remains, especially in places where the employees must appeal, both visually and in attitude, to the customer.

Sophie Sanchez, a senior studying anthropology and sustainability, said a friend of theirs was turned down to work at a Chick-Fil-A because of his appearance.

"They said they wouldn't even look at his application because he had long hair, unless he cut it, even though they like, allowed women to have long hair in the workplace," Sanchez said. "That's, again, kind of an arbitrary thing, and sometimes that's gender-based." 

Some have to adopt a tactic known as "code-switching," or adjusting one's behavior and mannerisms according to their audience for the purposes of assimilation in a certain group. 

Sanchez recalled an experience where a coworker approached them and a friend on the street. Sanchez instinctively straightened their collar, even changed the way they spoke, stood and gestured during the conversation. 

"As soon as I left, my friend started teasing me for acting like a ‘conquistadora,’ she called me. Because I was acting like, straight and white, because I was code-switching when I saw this person approaching me," Sanchez said.

Code-switching is a survival tactic for the sake of economic advancement, assimilation and making connections with people in the workplace, Sanchez said. 

"You have to kind of fit into that mold of what the corporate environment sets for you even if it doesn't feel comfortable or right," Sanchez said. "We shouldn't have to downplay our membership in a stigmatized group or avoid embodying the harmful stereotypes associated in that group just to be seen as competent and worthy."

Meghan Muldoon, an assistant professor at the School of Community Resources and Development, identified some of the underpinnings of Western professionalism standards as a justification for settler colonialism practices. 

Settler colonialism refers to the perpetuation of genocide and repression of Indigenous peoples and cultures, as defined by Alicia Carroll, assistant professor of comparative literature and English at the University of California, Irvine. Forms of oppression like racism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy and capitalism overlap under settler colonialism.

"The American society and the Canadian society is an ongoing settler-colonial state and in that condition, colonialism is not an event that happened in 1492, it continues," Muldoon said. "In all of our day-to-day interactions, in our institutions, in our education systems, it's embedded in the need for the belief that we have a right to be here, that we belong here, that our history justifies our ongoing occupation of this land."

On top of the pressure to assimilate, buying work clothes creates additional problems for working people. Senna Tomizuka, a second-year junior studying political science, has worked multiple jobs in the restaurant industry. Tomizuka said there is pressure put on women to present themselves in a specific way to be perceived professionally. 

Those clothes usually come at a high price, even if purchased secondhand. 

With all of these factors at stake, Sanchez believes policing presentation for reasons other than safety doesn't serve a greater purpose.

"I think that exclusion of personal expression is supposed to be an equalizer so that people can do that meritocratic way of deciding who is doing a good job," Sanchez said.

A yearlong pandemic that forced people to adapt to virtual work has demonstrated that a shift in the status quo is needed — one that deemphasizes policing appearances based on oppressive, arbitrary standards and works toward correcting systemic issues that routinely devalue work done by non-cisgender, non-white, non-men.



Reach the reporter at ssheptun@asu.edu and follow @SheptunovSonya on Twitter.

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