Professionalism is a bias machine. Here’s how to take it apart.


While Tina Opie has worn her hair in a twist more times than she can count, there’s one example that stands out.

Ten years ago, after spending hours detangling, washing, conditioning and twisting her hair, she had a meeting in which a white colleague remarked, “You wouldn’t wear your hair like this if you were still in the American business,” Opie, who is black, said. This colleague, she added, still had her shoulder-length wet hair.

“She felt comfortable asking me about my hairstyle, which took hours to accomplish, but didn’t hesitate to come to work with wet hair,” Opie said. “It shows how anti-black bias works and how privilege works.”

Opie’s twist commentary was a crystallizing moment. It showed how the merits of professionalism could often be a “tool of exclusion”, she said, in a way that had nothing to do with the ability to perform a task, that it s be it your accent, your size or your silence.

Last week, a bill targeting discrimination like the one Opie suffered passed the House of Representatives, which sent it to the Senate. Called the CROWN Act – the act of creating a respectful and open world for natural hair – the legislation would ban hair discrimination in the workplace. And at Morehouse College, a historically black institution, at least one administrator is wondering how to advise business students with natural hair.

Tina Opie Head

Tina Opie, associate professor at Babson College, has conducted groundbreaking research on hair discrimination.

Tina Opie

Professionalism is, by its origin, a heritage of the elites. White males of a certain class created what we now call corporate America, so the norms of this still mainstream culture are what everyone must assimilate to if they want to advance in the world. . These customs include speaking in a white American dialect, concealing tattoos or piercings, and wearing the right thing, whether it’s business suits or Patagonia vests. Yet research has shown that if a work culture drives employees to conform, workers are more burnt out, less engaged, less engaged, and more likely to move on.

Oxford business historian Christopher McKenna, who wrote the book on professionalization, said that when elite professional services like management consulting, venture capital and investment banking began to developing in the 1930s, these companies adapted to social expectations of what “the elite” looked like. .

“You may be offering something new, but you’re doing it in a traditional professional office, with people in suits who went to the right universities and live in the right suburbs,” McKenna said.

In England, it was an Oxford degree and an Etonian accent. In Germany, they learned to spot men with saber wounds on their cheeks, as fencing was a hobby of wealthy families.

“One of the steps professionalism takes is to universalize a certain style of behavior that is white and masculine as a normative standard by which everyone should be held accountable,” said Christy Glass, a sociologist at the University of State of Utah which has conducted many studies on hidden reality. exclusion and inclusion mechanisms.

“When you don’t and simply can’t conform to this imaginary standard of professionalism,” she said, you’re likely barred from recruitment or promotion because of a lack of “professionalism.” ” or “professional presentation”.

For Opie, the “Great Resignation” was a great release. “I want to be seen, heard and valued in the workplace,” she hears workers say with their resignation notices. “If it doesn’t happen here, I will pursue other avenues.”

Portrait of Christy Glass

The work of Christy Glass, a sociologist at Utah State University, has helped uncover some of the hidden machinations of prejudice.

Christy Glass

“It’s all a form of gaslighting”

Historical trends color modern prejudices.

“When professional roles are dominated by any group, in this case elite white males, our brains tend to confuse the qualifications for those roles with the social characteristics of the incumbents,” Glass said.

After Opie’s fateful interaction with her colleague, the banker-turned-consultant and associate professor at Babson College conducted a study that found black women were deemed less professional when they wore dreadlocks or afros than women. white or black women with slicked back hair. Other industry data showed that women were much more likely to get personality-based feedback, like watching their tone. Separate research suggested that black and Latino men from underrepresented backgrounds were seen as lacking polish or leadership potential, while comparable white men were seen as coachable.

These biases are demonstrated in research and products on the market. Consider the multitude of training offerings that are supposed to, as Glass put it, “fix women” – seminars where you’re told not only how to dress, style your hair and present yourself, but also how to negotiate (but not too hard) and be assertive (without being too much).

“It’s all a form of gaslighting,” said Glass, who is white. “It says there are these objective professional standards, and if you don’t meet them, it’s your own fault, and you just need to be more or less or different and you wouldn’t face that prejudice and to this discrimination.

Patricia Hewlin McGill

Patricia Faison Hewlin, associate professor of organizational behavior at McGill University, studies the relationship between authenticity and conformity at work.

McGill university

“Inclusion is not that warm, fuzzy feeling of belonging”

Complying is exhausting.

It’s one of the big lessons from Patricia Hewlin’s years of interviewing people about their work lives. The urge to conform is intuitive, said the banker-turned-management scholar at McGill University. It’s a way to ensure an interaction goes well, but it comes at an emotional cost. And if every employee of color is feeling that cost at your company, it’s going to be hard to retain them.

“Inclusion is not this warm, fuzzy feeling of belonging,” she said. “Inclusion is about being part of the system, which means having the resources to do the job, being among the people in the know, and really knowing what it takes to be successful.”

Hewlin, who is black, said tools such as employee surveys and focus groups could shed light on a company’s day-to-day practices, such as how candidates and employees are assessed and who gets recognized during interviews. meetings. And employee resource groups can also gather feedback to share with the organization’s management so they can move forward.

The Stanford Graduate School of Business also incorporates feedback into its system. Since 2018, the school’s diversity committee has awarded an Amplifier award to an instructor. The honor is given to a faculty member who manages the debate inclusively and brings case studies and speakers from underrepresented groups, countries, and industries.

With a bottom-up approach, “there’s less chance of replicating that same kind of professional standard, which ends up being discriminatory,” said Lori Nishiura Mackenzie, the school’s senior strategist for diversity, equity and inclusion.

“If we don’t rely on outdated standards like professionalism that have built into them ways to inadvertently discriminate against people who don’t look like or fit the mold, then what will we replace that with?” Nishiura Mackenzie, who is Japanese-American, added.

Lori Nishiura Mackenzie hi res

Lori Nishiura Mackenzie is the principal strategist for diversity, equity and inclusion at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Stanford Graduate School of Business

“We have to start taking it off”

Going from “professional” standards to objective standards is complicated.

According to Glass, the guiding principle is to remove “discretion” in the evaluation of talents to make things as objective as possible, with the least identity markers. In a much-cited study of orchestral auditions, the simple act of adding a physical screen between evaluators and performers they listened to — but couldn’t see — led to more women getting jobs.

Yet McKenna, the Oxford historian, said that objective measurements carry their own risks – if a business measures performance by hours worked, the people who succeed will be those who can maintain that lifestyle.

Inequalities are so often embedded in the institutional systems themselves.

Opie, the Babson associate professor, recalls working on diversity, equity and inclusion with a law firm, looking at how he evaluated the performance of their lawyers. After some encouragement, she learned that one measure of success was how often a lawyer was “first chair” on a case—a position heavily influenced by client preference.

“Now we have a problem,” she remembers saying. Science has shown that we generally prefer (and hire) people who are similar to us, a phenomenon called homophilia. Instead, his recommendation was to evaluate legal briefs with author names hidden, which comes close to an objective assessment of who is successful in office.

“You have to start peeling it because this seemingly objective question, ‘How many times did this lawyer serve that first chair?'” Opie said. “That’s actually a loaded question.”


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