Perception and Professionalism

This post was prompted by a discussion with my mentor, who was also on the panel for my phone interview. She was describing why they chose me, and made a comment that unnerved me a bit. She said that at first it seemed strange to do just a phone interview, but she saw now that in some ways it was more fair.

I wasn’t sure what she meant–was she referencing my height, my disability… or even my nose piercing? I knew the sentiment underneath was positive–that they loved my phone interview, and that my supervisor was very happy with my performance–but I was scared, and even slightly shocked by the implication that I would not have gotten the job with an in person interview.

I don't wear this dress to work. But the rest of me, professional or not, is pretty inescapable.

I don’t wear this dress to work. But the rest of me, professional or not, is pretty inescapable.


It never seriously occurred to me that my persona–tiny, quirky, and as I tend to say, vaguely disabled, could be dragging me down. I think of myself as professional: I try to be tactful, appropriate, and focused at work. I don’t show lots of skin, debate politics, or talk about wherever I danced or slept the night before.

At the same time, I want to be me, not bland corporate worker #237. I do have a nose stud, I dye my hair, I’m politically active, and I was raised with an ethos that many would describe as hippie-dippie. Of course, I know it’s not professional or appropriate to bring all of my experiences and identities to every situation. I try to walk that line as best I can. I don’t want to sabotage my reputation professionally or academically, but I’m also critical of the homogeneity of “professionalism”. A lot of advice to young people about being professional really seems to be telling us to hide who we are if we fall at all outside the norm.

Right now, the way I’m handling this is to be politely myself. I wear appropriate clothing, but my business casual is perhaps slightly on the earthy side (I have a lot of scarves.) I’ve tried to wear more makeup and sheath dresses, but I feel uncomfortable and less confident when I don’t look like myself. And ultimately, my professional strength depends on my confidence. It doesn’t matter how great my ideas are if no one hears them. And to my surprise, despite all of the ways I don’t resemble a generic young professional, people listen to me at work because I know what I’m talking about. They see that I work hard, that I ask questions, and that I speak with clarity and confidence.

I’m getting to know myself pretty well–my weaknesses (real and perceived by society) and my strengths. I can compensate for my weaknesses and capitalize on my strengths. That doesn’t stop me from freaking out occasionally, but it helps.

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