Exploring the origins of professionalism

It is important to have a critical eye on what we define as the standard. Read an article where Kwasi examines the concept of professionalism!

Professionalism in the western world is a concept that has always piqued my curiosity. I could never explain the feeling, but it always made me wonder what the term really meant. That is why I decided to research its origins, and why we must work to continually define what it means in our areas of work.

Professionalism can be defined as an individual’s “commonly understood adherence to a set of standards, code of conduct or collection of qualities that characterize accepted practice within a particular area of activity”. I just wanted to share a definition before you continue to read this chapter of Fleeting Dreams.

A Historic Example of Professionalism

One of the earliest references to professionalism came in 400 BC. It was from the Hippocratic Oath that set a standard for professional and ethical conduct in medical settings. This oath has laid a foundation for a continued pursuit of trust, credibility, and excellence in healthcare practices. This oath guides much of the work we see in the western world. We can agree that healthcare has taken leaps and bounds since 400 BC. However, I also think of communities that have been significantly harmed by these same foundational practices. 

When looking at the history of Black Americans and healthcare in the past few centuries, a few things are made clear. There is distrust with the evidence to support it. There is a history of forced sterilizations on Black women. There is the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis study, where hundreds of Black men were withheld treatment for researchers to evaluate its effects. I can dive further into this topic and explain how different communities have been impacted in different ways, but will leave it here for now.

If you’re going to have one takeaway from this section, it is that professionalism has an inherent subjectivity to it. We must always ask who has defined standard practices and approaches as acceptable.

Professionalism and the General Workplace

Professionalism has been ingrained in corporate working environments too. These standards were created to measure employee skills, behaviours, appearance, and adherence to organizational objectives (Source). With that said, many can speculate to what degree workplace standards have impacted individuals from equity deserving communities. Common examples you’ve heard of may include: career advancement barriers, code switching, and misogynoir in the workplace. As a way to survive, many have acknowledged these things, and continually seek ways to thrive in spite of them.

In organizations that were developed with eurocentric and colonial roots, we must consider who has established the standards that employees are expected to adhere to.

We must think about how traditional practices may impact modern workplaces that are much more diverse. We are continuing to see more recognition of this in Canada. Late last year, the Federal Government said that it supported the decision to include Black and LGBTQIA+ communities among groups facing systemic workplace barriers under the Employment Equity Act (Source). This announcement aimed to recognize the overt and covert ways in which members of these communities have faced barriers in their careers. It also highlights the need to continually and critically assess what work practices are identified as acceptable. 

Professionalism is a subjective term, and it is important to understand whose work experiences may be impacted as a result.

Key Takeaway

I wanted to use the examples above for two reasons. The first was to show how historic examples of professionalism may impact communities differently. The second was to show why it is important to evaluate workplace practices, and how workplace experiences can vary significantly without intentional action, discussion and intervention. 

It is important to set standards. They help establish blueprints for excellence. In workplaces that are working to be more inclusive, it is important to be more critical as to how professionalism is defined. That is why when defining professionalism in work settings, we must also ask who has established:

  • The set of standards people are expected to adhere to
  • The code of conduct
  • The collection of accepted qualities and characteristics among employees

Happy Black History & Futures Month! Let us continue to ask ourselves how we can acknowledge the past, while creating a brighter path forward.

I like to look at complex topics, and make them conversational points of learning and reflection. Feel free to explore my website to learn more!

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