Redefining Professionalism: bringing the post-patriarchy one step closer

Does this look professional to you? feminaust co-founder MsElouise at the official launch of

What do you imagine when you think of professionalism. What does it look and sound like to you? Dark suits and ties? Nice language? Good education? Handshakes and jugs of water? Good reporting and accountability? Until a few recent events culminated in a radical change in me, that’s pretty much what I had in mind. Professionalism was about having the answers, good research, well written reports and measures of accountability. It looked like a dark suit, maybe a few touches of colour. It sounded well educated, well thought out and respectful. I’m not so sure anymore though.

What if professionalism could be whatever we wanted it to be and more importantly, as women, what if we could redefine it entirely? In feminist studies we sometimes talk about the post-patriarchy, the promised land of gender equality and the redefinition of traditional patriarchal values. I think that post-professionalism is one step on the road to the post-patriarchy and I’m excited about exploring what that means, particularly for young women.

I have this friend (who I will try to deidentify but that could be tricky, I doubt he reads this

World YWCA General Secretary Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda with her bosses the young women of the World YWCA Board and movement

so I’ll try not to care). Let’s call him Richard. Richard is what I like to call a professional young person. He gads about the world, attending international events and giving his professional opinion about stuff as a young person. Problem is, that is he isn’t a young person, sure he’s young (early 20s) but he isn’t really a real young person. He doesn’t live in a real young person world and he doesn’t understand real young person problems. Worst of all in my opinion, he doesn’t look like a young person. He looks like a politician… or a beauracrat. He already loves the dark conservative suit, the boring tie and the political nothingness language which makes him so attractive to other “professionals” wanting to appear to be listening to the voice of tomorrow. Sadly, they are deluding themselves, he isn’t the voice of tomorrow, he’s the voice of yesterday dressed in the attire of his forefathers and making broadly incorrect assumptions about his fellow “younguns” based on shallow observation and huge leaps of poor imagination. BUT, he is listened to, and I think this is because he fits into the cookie cutter of what “professional” looks and feels like. And I think as women and young people we need to reject this concept of what professionalism must be and redefine it for our own benefit, for our real and imagined future.

Working hard AND having fun. The new professionals.

In July, I was in Zurich at the Young Women’s Leadership Dialogue (YWLD), International Women’s Summit (IWS) and YWCA World Council (WC11). Three simultaneous events which celebrate the World YWCA movement and the world women’s movement in general with a particular emphasis on young women’s participation in real and meaningful ways. Which in real terms means young women leaders on World Board, young women leading and speaking in pleneries and breakout sessions and young women making decisions in voting, constitutional changes, debating amendments and resolutions and lobbying for change and redirection across a world movement effecting over 25 million women and girls every year. In my eyes, many of these young women were redefining professionalism right before my very eyes. Sometimes with the help and support of adult women and mentors, sometimes in direct violation of their wishes and requests. These were young women from developing pacific nations and massive powerful developed nations and organisationally strong African nations and brand new member association nations. Nations ravaged by natural and man made disaster, nations ravaged by HIV/AIDS, nations struggling with recognising Indigenous populations or basic human rights violations or internal conflict.

Some of the young women I met could hardly speak English and yet had the confidence to

The only navy suit and the only speaker to refuse to keep to time. Professional?

demand their space and opportunity to speak. Some came dressed in professional business suits (but still with bright colours) but most came in casual attire, or traditional attire or completely out of this world amazing colourful attire. I saw women of all ages singing and dancing and crying and hugging dignitaries and world leaders. Myself and the General Secretary of YWCA Aetoeroa/New Zealand stormed the stage and demanded hugs and photos with a VIP. There was collaboration, frustration, exhaltation, mediation, reaction, attraction (well it was a women’s conference after all), connection and gyration (80s night!!!!!!!). The ONLY people wearing dark suits were the men (there were one or two) and I was loving it. Because we were still being professional. We were getting work done, making changes, working together and planning for the future and it didn’t require stern looks and navy ties and meaningless polite small talk.

Do music and singing and dancing and colour not have a place in a professional organisation?

We started the week with singing, we ended the week with singing and we filled the time between with movement building and visioning and program development and constitutional amendments but we also filled it with the real work of professionals. Relationship building and thanksgiving and big dreams and choosing new leaders, new young leaders to move us forward into the next quadrenium.

So how do I think that women and young women can redefine professionalism here in

Do these women deserve equal respect as professionals?

Australia? By demanding to be heard, by refusing to abide by outdated and unreasonable superficial concepts of professionalism like 9-5 work hours and “business attire”. To insist on the recognition of the legitimacy of every voice, whether they speak eloquently or swear like a sailor. To make it known that tears are not a sign of weakness but a human reaction to pain, injustice, shock and a myriad of other experiences. To insist that motherhood does not equal uselessness and that infants should be welcome in the boardroom and the tea room and guess what!? breasts are for breastfeeding and women should have the right to nourish their infants whenever necessary. Young women should demand that they’re listened to, whether they turn up in a navy pant suit or a violet kaftan. That disability does not equal defective and my English may not be perfect but damnit I still have something important to say.

How would you redefine professionalism?

5 thoughts on “Redefining Professionalism: bringing the post-patriarchy one step closer

  1. This is a great piece MsElouise. As a young woman working in a professional capacity this has always interested me. A big change from my arts degree where ‘the look’ didn’t matter. I remember my depression on my first interstate work trip where it was men in black/grey/navy suits in the airport departure lounge. Like your article says I’d rather let my conduct dictate my professionalism.

  2. What a fantastic piece.

    I work in a professional role. I have hot pink close cropped hair, tattoos and love quirky clothing in bright colours. I am only happy when I can see the humour in situations and love a laugh and to play. My desk is covered in toys and snow globes and geek humour.

    So of course, I am constantly read as “unprofessional”.

    Yet in the same environment as me and my “unprofessional” toys, colour, humour and quirks, nobody keeps records as well as I do. Nobody keeps a cool head in a crisis like I do. Nobody has as many contacts throughout the organisation always willing to answer a question, teach how to do something, pitch in during a crisis or work a little bit harder for a little bit longer than I do. Nobody problem solves like I do.

    I’ve got a bloody good work ethic and am passionate about what I do.

    The very things that mark me as “unprofessional” are the very things that mark me as unique. They’re the very things that make me stand out in the organisation, and people I encounter always remember me. My humour and unguardedness are what cut through the panic, the stress, the corporate doublespeak and get the job done.

    I refuse to play the game like a man and instead bring my own unique style and personality to my work, and use them to my advantage.

  3. I had a similar revelation last year. When I decided to throw my office job to the wind and follow my passions of art and writing. The boring yet stylish pantsuits are gone, save for a couple that I may need some day. The long hippie skirts and comfortable jeans with tshirts is in.
    I even changed all my perfect profile pics for one of me with a goofy grin holding my first published book. I feel like me. I can still speak properly, behave myself as needed and exude confidence in my manners without staying in a stereotype that just isn’t me. I traded business in for a bit hippie a bit serious but mostly comfortable.

    I like what you said here: “but most came in casual attire, or traditional attire or completely out of this world amazing colourful attire. I saw women of all ages singing and dancing” That has the ring of professional that I can get with.

    In the end what can I say but THANK YOU for this post. You rock!

  4. Pingback: Welcome to Monday! ~ 18th May 2015 | feminaust ~ for australian feminism

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