skip to main content
Professionalism: What Does It Even Mean?

Professionalism: What Does It Even Mean?

Have we collectively projected ideas about professionalism that may or may not have anything to do with what being professional actually means? Dr. Tina Opie, Chief Vision Officer at Opie Consulting Group, joins the podcast to talk about where these norms originate, what organizations miss when they let conformity to these norms take place, and where they should put their focus instead. "Organizations really need to interrogate what they are doing if people who are performing well still don't feel like they belong because of things like professional attire, guidelines or norms," Dr. Opie says.

Camille Lloyd is the Director of the Gallup Center on Black Voices. Follow her at @policyresrchbuf

Dr. Ella F. Washington is the CEO of Ellavate Solutions and a Professor of Practice at Georgetown McDonough School of Business. Follow her at @EllaFWashington

Learn more about the Gallup Center on Black Voices at

Below is a full transcript of the conversation, including time stamps. Full audio is posted above.

Camille Lloyd 00:11

Welcome to Cultural Competence. I'm Camille Lloyd.

Ella Washington 00:15
And I'm Dr. Ella Washington.

Camille Lloyd 00:17
I'm excited about this week's discussion, Ella. I, we are talking about professionalism. I'd love to hear just a little bit from you. Where did you get your idea of what's professional from?

Ella Washington 00:28
Yeah, I think, you know, first of all, growing up going to church every Sunday, you see people dressed in suits and hats. And there's this, you know, culture that you really wanted to bring your best self, and it's kind of "Sunday go to meeting" is what we called it in North Carolina. But then evolving from that, you know, when I went to college at Spelman College, there were very clear guidelines on how you show up for anything that has a professional guise. So whether it's a student government meeting or if you were interested in a sorority meeting, you had to, you know, wear suits and look professional. And it was just a standard, you know, seeing a black suit with a white-collared shirt or a blue-collared shirt at Spelman was kind of our everyday attire if we were showing up professionally. And I never questioned it, to be honest, you know, I couldn't wait till my first internship on Wall Street, to go to Banana Republic and try to get all of the things that would make me look professional and cute, you know, while I was at it most times. But, you know, it was something I never questioned until recently.

Ella Washington 01:35
And, you know, there's been a lot of conversation in our world around bringing your whole self to work. And I've had even students who are at the MBA level asked me like, hey, I'm joining this big, you know, top firm, and they're saying that they want me to feel included, but they're still dressing like it's 20 or 30 years ago. And I'm not sure how to navigate that with my style or my tattoos. And so recently I have even been questioning, you know, what does it mean to be professional? Did I get it wrong? You know, how do we shift, as we think about not only how we show up, but also future generations. But I'm curious, you know, was your experience the same growing up in Jamaica?

Camille Lloyd 02:12
It was; we do know what you wore to church and what you didn't, right. You didn't want to be called a Jezebel. I remember, you know, I was so pressed to have, like an anklet, and it was like, well you had to take all of those off when you get to looking professional. And so I think a lot of, over the years, where I've picked up my, you know, perspective of what professional is is looking at those around me. And oftentimes, you know, coming from Jamaica and then living in Florida and going to school in Florida, it really was around what other people around me wore, and most of those people didn't look like me. And so a lot of my perception of what it was to be professional was copying from the people who were around me. And so that looked a particular way. It's the skirt suit right? There's that one skirt suit with a little ruffle blouse, and that was because, if you can picture that. And my hair was always straight. If I ever had a presentation or something that was considered a big meeting that I had to you know, show up for, it was really kind of you know, pulling around, pulling away from these different examples that I've seen around those who were around me and quote, unquote were professional or those who were above me. And so a lot of that was kind of emulating that look.

Ella Washington 03:28
And that's why I'm really excited for this conversation today, because a lot of what we do here on Cultural Competence is question the status quo. And I thought it was no other way than to bring my friend Dr. Tina Opie on with us, to really break down, what is the history of professionalism? What is professionalism? And how do we approach it with an inclusive mindset?

Camille Lloyd 03:48
Dr. Tina Opie is a voice for change and coalition building, fostering a sense of inclusion in society, communities, and organizations. As a thought leader and provocateur, she combines practice and theory, an approach that ensures engagement, deep thinking and action. Using her trademark Shared Sisterhood framework, she helps individuals and organizations dig in and unearth our blind spots, providing a catalyst for new thinking and needed change. In developing Shared Sisterhood, Dr. Opie has created more than a powerful approach for connecting and supporting each other; she's fostering a new way of navigating the world by staying true to ourselves while working together. It's a modern-day movement of individuality and sisterhood that crosses traditional boundaries of ethnicity, socioeconomics, age, even gender. Dr. Opie obtained her Ph.D. in management with a concentration in organizational behavior in 2010 from New York University's Stern School of Business. She earned her MBA from the Darden School of Business in 1999. Look for Dr. Tina's book Shared Sisterhood, coauthored with Dr. Beth Livingston and published by Harvard Business Press, this fall. Welcome, Dr. Opie!

Tina Opie 05:07
Well thank you, Camille and Ella, for having me. I am really excited to be here. And I almost spit out my water when you all were talking about Jezebel and anklets in churches, and that took me back to the lap cloths. How, you know, I mean I don't think I was a Jezebel, but the usher would come up and give me the lap cloth and you were like, Well, dang. I thought I was godly, and now I need to cover myself up. So what was interesting is it was a little difficult to focus on the word because I was feeling self-conscious at that point or feeling judged. And I think that's actually a good segue to this conversation about the tension between authenticity and professionalism. And so I will stop there, because I have many thoughts, but I want to make sure that we get to the points that you all want to raise.

Ella Washington 06:02
We want to hear all of your thoughts, Dr. Opie. But why don't we start with, you know, what is the definition of professional dress as you know it, and how has it evolved over time?

Tina Opie 06:14
Yes. So let's start first with the definition of professionalism. So professionalism is supposed to be about whether or not someone has the skill or the task competence to perform their job. That's the idea of professionalism. But unfortunately, what has happened is we've overlaid assessments of task preparedness -- we've put on top of that, I think, some cultural understandings of what is and is not appropriate for work. And a good example of that is, you mentioned the business suit earlier, Ella, and so did you, Camille, when you talked about the skirt set. I mean, I think all of us had that. I used to shop at a store called Casual Corner. It's probably long out of business, but I actually worked there because your girl got a discount on those suits. So, and that was what I needed. That's what I wanted. Because my first job after college was I was a banker. I work for NationsBank, which is now Bank of America. And then I became a consultant, a management consultant, and then I became a professor.

Tina Opie 07:18
And so it's the first two roles -- and I will divide the two, because I do think there's something, I've had some interesting observations. The first two roles are considered sort of classic white-collar, professional jobs -- banking and consulting, where you're interfacing with clients, you are expected to generate revenue and, as a result, you need to be what they would use is the term "conservative." You need to have a conservative, professional appearance. And I only want to provide the commentary on, well, what's interesting is if you look at the term "conservative," it has to do with conserving the status quo. So let's just let that settle in. You were supposed to dress in a way that preserves the status quo.

Tina Opie 08:06
The status quo was a place that that would have meant that I shouldn't have even been there, because I was the only Black woman on my team. I was, when I started, I was the youngest. And I was very, I was what, 23, 24 when I started. So, for example, I never wore my contact lenses; I only wore my eyeglasses because it made me look older. And when I think back on that, I received the Rookie of the Year award. So I was doing well at my job, but I never felt like I fully fit in, because I felt as though maybe my lipstick is too red. I had a relaxer then, so my hair was straight, but I always felt different. And I think it's important to remember that if the definition of professionalism is about task competence, organizations really need to interrogate what they're doing if people who are performing well still don't feel like they belong because of things like professional attire guidelines or norms.

Camille Lloyd 09:11
I think for those listening, because everybody always kind of start with these conversations about, "But there's nothing wrong with trying to be professional." What does it, in, what ways does professional dress coded, in terms of just meaning to be discriminatory or policing of our bodies? What ways that this, under the guise of professionalism, does that show up? Because I think a lot of people might struggle with what's wrong with being professional?

Tina Opie 09:38
Yes. So I think we need to unpack because profession, the determination of what is professional and what's not professional does not happen in a vacuum. And what I have helped organizations understand is that, for example, the belief that you should not express anger at work or the belief that you don't want to be too direct because you can hurt people's feelings, those have cultural underpinnings. When I watched the show "Downton Abbey," or the movie, I felt like I learned a lot about workplace professionalism because, for example, you're not supposed to tell someone that their house is ugly or that their food is nasty. You're supposed to make some, in a very calm voice, sort of a zinger kind of comment that's passive-aggressive, where they don't quite know if you've insulted them, but it feels like an insult. Versus I come from a background where you're direct. You say, "I'll have a bottle of water." Or you know, you may say, "Well, I might not have picked that color, but I love the architecture of the home." That is how I was raised.

Tina Opie 10:51
And so when I go into an environment where if I say something direct to someone, or if I just, if I simply articulate what I'm thinking and it could be perceived as negative or constructive criticism, that is considered a bad thing. And I just want us to examine, is that because of Victorian principles where you're not supposed to communicate these emotions, where the idea of a leader is someone who was always emotionally even-keeled, who's not too vulnerable? The larger takeaway from that is that the norms, norms are just in culture; that's the way that we do things around here. Those things are determined or influenced by the countries of origin where the leaders come from. So think about how in the United States, you know, you know, how is dimensions of culture. Right? So one of them is, is about sensitivity to time. Well, if you go to other countries, the clock is a guide; it's a, it's a suggestion. It is not meant to be exact.

Tina Opie 12:07
I was raised in a military family. My mother was in the Marines; my dad was in the Navy. So for us, the clock is the rule, and the rule is, to be early is to be on time; to be on time is to be late; and to be late is unthinkable. So I'm coming to work with that mindset. And in my mind, that is right, that is what is professional: to be early. In contrast, there may be someone who comes from another country where the clock is a suggestion. And they show up 10 minutes after I, the meeting was scheduled to start. So now we have this debate about who's professional, without ever understanding that there are cultural underpinnings of the determination of what is and is not professional.

Ella Washington 12:56
So I think it's really interesting that you're talking about the cultural underpinnings of, you know, how workplaces are led and what's considered professional. I'll never forget in one of my first consulting jobs, we went to a offsite retreat for people of color for mentoring and development, right. And they told a story of how a woman who was from the islands, you know, came in and she had to be coached. Her dress was too bright; she wore too many bright colors for the standard in our consulting firm. And so, you know, she talked about her experience, how she got coaching and she changed her dress and, you know, now she was on the path to partnership and things like that. And, you know, I just remember that being a moment, like, so really it wasn't her competence at all. It wasn't her performance at all. It was her dress and then of course her accent as well was something that she had to be coached to work through. So when I share stories like that, Dr. Opie, what comes to mind for you? What is it that organizations are missing when they're allowing things like that to take place?

Tina Opie 14:09
Well, first of all, it's so sad to me because that's really indoctrination, and it's encouraging conformity, so, to a particular set of norms. And your willingness to conform to those norms is a signal that you will sort of fall into place and not necessarily challenge the status quo, and that you'll nicely ascend up the organization. But when I work with people and organizations and leaders, in particular, I say, "Well, let's just talk about the business suit." So this woman was chastised for having a colorful business suit, right. Do you all know where the business suit originates from?

Ella Washington 14:50
We don't. We want to hear.

Tina Opie 14:52
Yes. And so, you know when I, when I asked this question, first of all, no one knows. It was the British royal court. So think about this, this is the, a suit, the contemporary suit is based on -- the origin of it, the foundation of it was wealthy men after dinner used to dine in front of the fireplace in these after-dinner suits. And they -- think red, yellow, pink, bright colors. Because -- why? At that time it was very expensive to have fabrics that were imported, to have fabrics that could be dyed. And so when you had on a canary yellow suit, it signaled status. It signaled that you were of the gentry, that you were wealthy, or of the aristocracy. But then you had the French Rev -- and by the way, so that was what the rich people were communicating. Most of the people who did not have a lot of money, what color were their clothes? Well, it was the color of sheep. You know, because you're not going to be, you don't need canary yellow when you're pulling weeds or potatoes or plowing or etcetera, etcetera.

Tina Opie 16:00
Fast forward. You have the French Revolution where there's this whole issue with the aristocracy, and you might literally lose your head. There was someone who was sort of a social climber; his name was Beau Brummel. This is a real person. His name was Beau Brummel. He was from a lower class, but he had managed to ascend up into the higher levels of the court. So he was whispering in the ears of the king and the prince. He said, "Well, we should have more subdued colors. Let's get rid of hot pink and canary yellow; let's look for things more like navy or black or gray." So that was the first thing. The second thing he said is, "Gentlemen, I need you to bathe every day. I also need you to shave your face." So Beau Brummel -- I have, I have an ad here, an ad from Gillette. Beau Brummel was actually quoted in a Gillette ad, which I find so interesting if you fast forward all the way. And to this day, if you go into London, where they have the fashion district for men, there's a statue erected of Beau Brummel, because he is largely credited for laying the foundation for many of the decisions that people make about professional business suits to this day.

Tina Opie 17:17
So that's what comes to my mind when they, when they tell that young woman from the islands that she's dressing too brightly, I'm sitting here saying, Beau Brummel is basically whispering in their ear over the, over the generations, and they don't even know that. They're making decisions about someone's future and their preparedness for the job -- they have no idea where that's coming from. That, it's also challenging because, I don't know if you all have heard about color therapy, where they talk about how certain colors are more likely to physiologically and psychologically generate certain things. So for example, red may lead to increased energy or yellow may be creativity. I could be getting these wrong, but that's the point. The point is blue, navy blue, is not necessarily associated with creativity; some other color may be.

Tina Opie 18:11
So if you're working in a company where you want creativity, why wouldn't you encourage this kind of color? If you're interacting with clients and want, they want to feel that they have some kind of warm connection with you, why wouldn't you encourage that? And my idea, my suggestion to organizations is not necessarily to eliminate your norms of professionalism, but to interrogate them, understand why they're there, before you begin to overlay them and force employees to conform and comply.

Camille Lloyd 18:46
So Dr. Opie, this idea, and Ella mentioned about this kind of being at this retreat and being mentored out of your identity. When somebody says, when you think about the dynamics of mentoring and saying, you know, "I'm ambitious and I want to be successful in this organization," and someone says to you, "Well let me help you navigate the politics," and sometimes some of that might be code. But what do you do, in terms of how do we reimagine what that dynamic looks like, and how do we have, in organizations, you know, positive ways of approaching mentoring and sponsorship that doesn't reinforce some of these things that we know are really, you know, bad for our individuality?

Tina Opie 19:29
I like to say that we are flying the jet and building the jet at the same time. And what I mean by that is, it can seem really appropriate to just tell people, "You be you; be authentic. If you want to wear locks, if you want to wear your dashiki, if you wanna wear your natural afro, if you want to wear bright red lipstick or ear pierce, go for it." That is one mindset. I'm actually not of that mindset. My mindset is I want you to count the cost. I want you to be aware. I don't want you to make a decision that's uninformed. So you may still choose to do all those things, but be aware that there might be some places where they won't hire you. And some people might say, "Well then, I would never want to work for that place." Well, that is definitely a statement of privilege. Because if you have bills to pay, you're gonna go work there.

Tina Opie 20:26
And so I just think, you know, there's often this, people like to bifurcate the conversation about authenticity versus professionalism. I think you can have an informed decision-making process where you lay out the pros and cons, and then you make your decision. As a person who is more senior in my field, and now that I have tenure, I'm much more, I mean, I don't have as many costs to count. Because I mean, what do, I have an afro; we want you to straighten your hair. That's, that's never gonna work. But I like to use my privilege on behalf of people who are more junior to me.

Tina Opie 21:10
So this is what I would say. I would say that oftentimes, sometimes when you're more junior, it's just a pragmatic decision that you have to make. How is this going to affect my career path? If we're building the jet and flying it at the same time -- I wish this wasn't the case -- but I have to say, I have noticed that no one here wears certain things. I may choose to wear that, but I recognize that there is a cost that may come to that. The thing I do want to put out there for people to consider is there is a cost to inauthenticity. Dr. Pat Hewlin has work on facades of conformity. Dr. Laura Morgan Roberts has done some work about sort of changing. Dr. Atira Charles has done some work on masks. When you are inauthentic, it affects your wellbeing. It can affect your productivity. It can affect your engagement and even your identification with the organization.

Tina Opie 22:09
So there are negative costs that can come. And I saw you, Ella, so the negative identification with the organization, imagine if I want to wear my afro, but for some reason that I have been informally mentored that I would have a higher chance of getting partner or tenure or whatever if I straighten my hair. That means that the values of the organization are potentially in conflict with how I want to live my life. And so that means that I may not feel a part of the organization. Instead of saying "us," I say "they" -- they are pressuring me to do this thing that I don't want to do. So now there's this us versus them, or me versus them, bifurcation. I think it's just important to remember that. So I know I said a lot, Camille, but I really hope it's resonating that it's, you have to make pragmatic decisions. And one of the, part of that decision is recognizing that there is a cost to being inauthentic.

Ella Washington 23:14
And I love the pragmatic notion that you bring up here because, you know, people often struggle with that. And we want to live in this world where everything is, you know, postracial and postdiscrimination and gender equality, but that's not the world we live in, you know, unfortunately. We're working on it, we're trying to get there, but we're not there yet. And unfortunately, the data also show that unfortunately, you are more likely to get that partner position if your hair is straight. You are more likely to be seen as someone who should be put in front of clients. And we know, you know, all about this is why the Crown Act is important, right? But the data still show that that discrimination exists. But I want to push us a little bit and ask you, you know, well, how do you connect this sense of professionalism, professional identity with respectability politics? Because that often comes up with this notion of, you know, I should be able to be me and be free.

Tina Opie 24:14
Well, my definition of respectability politics -- and I want to make sure that we're aligned and on the same page -- is where often people from historically marginalized groups believe that if they signal certain things, if they speak a certain way, if they dress a certain way, if they comport themselves in a particular way, they will be more likely to be respected by the power-dominant culture, which can mean everything from you're more likely to be hired to less likely to being shot and killed. So that's what I understand respectability politics to be. The flip side of that, however, is what I think can be particularly pernicious, which is where people will argue the reason why you were shot or didn't get hired is because of your accent or your hair. I think that that -- we have to really interrogate that. That was the attribute that the power-dominant person could single out to blame that on, but I think it's actually white supremacy that led to you not being hired.

Tina Opie 25:16
And so respectability politics are really challenging, because oftentimes it can be about identity alteration, and what I mean by that is instead of me wearing my hair in its Afrocentric state, I feel that to be respectable to White people or -- I mean, that's just the power-dominant group that we're gonna talk about, I have to straighten my hair. OK, that is, that's really problematic to me, and I think we need to look at that further. And we need to, at the same time, I need to count the cost. Because if I don't play the game, I very well might not become partner; I very well might not get tenure. And again, this comes back to the pragmatism that I mentioned earlier.

Camille Lloyd 26:12
So Dr. Obie, in some of our Center research around jobs and work, and we know about Black women in the workplace. And so compared to all races, White and Hispanic women, that Black women are least likely to strongly agree that they are treated with respect at work and least likely to feel valued and that there's a climate of fair treatment among their coworkers. As we start to think about the shared sisterhood and what that looks like, how can we create and advance equity in the workplace through shared sisterhood?

Tina Opie 26:44
Yes, I do wanna have one caveat. You didn't mention Asian women. Asian women are often assumed to be sort of the model minority and lumped together. But if you look at the statistics and the outcomes for Asian people, there is a dichotomy where you have, if you have, if you're from the Philippines or Vietnam or, then you have very different outcomes than you might have if you are from China or Japan or India. So I just think it's important to recognize that, because sometimes the way that we analyze the data affects the interpretation of the data. So that's, that's, and it's some of the same things can be said about his women from Hispanic or Latinx cultures. Because if you are from certain countries where there tend to be darker hues, then you find that there's also an array and a spectrum of outcomes as well. So I just want to be careful that that we make sure that we don't do that -- or that we look into that nuance that's associated with cultural racio-ethnic backgrounds.

Tina Opie 27:49
To answer your question, Camille, about how does shared sisterhood foster equity in the workplace, I have spent a lot of time thinking about this. My coauthor, Beth Livingston, and I, when we wrote the book, we asked ourselves questions like this. And the first thing is that, I mean, shared sisterhood is a philosophy that's focused on getting systems changed in organizations -- actually acting, acting. It's based on three practices. The first is dig, which is where you have to surface and understand yourself. Why do you believe what you believe? Where do those beliefs come from? And when I talk, you know, when I talk to a lot of White women in particular, many of them have not necessarily done, they haven't done dig work. And so when this, this, I think, contributes to that culture and climate that you're talking about, Camille. Black women often don't feel understood at work, are misunderstood, there are misattributions made about them -- and other women. But I'm, we're gonna specifically -- I'm a Black woman; we're gonna talk about Black women and White women. In part, that is because White women have never, have not had a reason to necessarily dig into who they are. And I mean White women at a collective level. I know that there are always exceptions, but I'm saying, what kind of systemic pressure do you see that would compel White women to examine, what does it mean to be White? When did I become White?

Tina Opie 29:18
And when I ask that question of people and they say, "Well, I'm assuming you don't mean when I was born." You are correct. That's not what I'm talking about. When did you become aware that being White had privilege -- had some kind of status, and that everybody didn't have the same kind of -- when, how old were you? For most Black people, that's really young. For most White people, is usually later in college or at work when they begin to be exposed to people who are not like them, to people who are Black or Hispanic or etcetera. So dig is the first practice, because I have seen too many organizational initiatives where they say, Let's try to bridge, which is the second practice is connecting with people who are different than you. But I don't want you to connect with me when you haven't done that dig work because you're probably, your connection attempt is going to be harmful to me. You're going to ask me things like, "Can I touch your hair?" "Is your hair greasy?" "Do you have -- why don't you, isn't your hair dirty? You don't wash your hair except once a week? Oh my goodness! Can I -- ?"

Tina Opie 30:21
Those kinds of comments and questions reflect a deep lack of awareness of other, but I would say, even more so, a lack of awareness of self and how whiteness allowed you to get to be 30 years old and ask those kinds of ignorant questions. So that's the second practice. The third -- so that's, bridge is about connecting with people who are different than you. And what that looks like is I use the example of Beth and I. Dr. Beth Livingston and I have become sisters for real, where we have disagreed, argue, I'm a Christian; she's not a Christian. We talk about the different things that we agree on. We talk about parenting. We talk about sex. We talk about being married. We talk about getting older. And at the center of that, we look at the power dynamics that affect the relationship that we have because I'm a Black woman and she's a White woman. So there may be times where she's like, "Well, I don't know if I can say that, because ..." or I might say, "I don't know if I should say this, but I'm about to ..." That, that's what bridge is.

Tina Opie 31:26
Bridge is about creating an authentic connection based on trust and risk-taking, vulnerability and empathy. And once you have that connection, you may have disagreements, but what we're hoping is that your -- the superordinate focus on the value of equity will temper any disagreement. And it's not just about friendship. I really want your listeners to understand that. You can be friends with somebody and never talk about race or gender or power dynamics. That's not what I'm looking for. I don't need to be your friend. I need us to be able to have an actual conversation about these systems of oppression that have historically marginalized my people and other people.

Tina Opie 32:05
So the third practice is collective action. And that's where we come together and we actually do the work of dismantling inequitable systems. So I tell people think about how you recruit people, onboard socialize, evaluate, promote -- all of those systems have biases built into them, and I need you to look beyond implicit bias. I actually have a real problem with the way that implicit bias trainings are often done, because there's almost always that one shot where it has all the different kinds of biases. And they've been flattened, such that it appears that the bias of height and race and gender and geographic preference and all those things are equal. That is not the case. So, many implicit bias trainings leave out the construct of power. And if you don't, power has got to be at the center of this. Why do we even care about racioethnicity? Because historically that has been the underpinning of oppression and marginalization and of privilege and advantage. Anyway, don't get me to preaching. And so, when you have dig, bridge and collective action, when you have people who are willing to look at themselves and then they're willing to look at me as a full human being, then we can begin to move together towards equity. But I really think that if any of those ingredients, if any of that is missing, it's very difficult to move towards equity, Camille.

Ella Washington 33:49
So with organizations that are listening and they're saying, oh maybe we should consider what we think is professional or not professional. Where should they focus their efforts? What should they be doing, in terms of professional dress, but also just what it means to be a successful "professional" in their organization?

Tina Opie 34:11
So I have several ways to answer this. The first thing that came to my mind is listen -- ask your employees. Many times, organizational leaders like to take top-down approaches. "Well, we think that there should be just casual Fridays." Well actually for me as a black woman, I never dress casual on Friday because that's work. I always, "Why are you so dressy?" I think I started wearing jeans, but I always had on pearls.

Ella Washington 34:37
And then you have to determine what kind of jeans, because they can't be too tight and were curvy, so casual Fridays actually used to stress me out.

Tina Opie 34:46
Exactly. So, and so that's an example. So you need to talk to your employees and be willing to listen to the historically marginalized voices. I actually say, prioritize those voices, because if the whole reason that you're interested in exploring your norms of professionalism is to create a more inclusive culture, then listen to the voices and prioritize the voices of people who have historically been excluded. Like, so I'm not saying ignore White people or -- that is not what I'm saying. But what I'm saying is we need to make sure that we give opportunity to everyone. So listen to your employees. The other thing that I would say is start with yourself. As leaders, leaders are also -- I have a I have a talk that I give called, "Culture or Cage." And what I, what the basic premise is, is this really about culture or is -- that's free and liberating and we can experience together, or are really all of us confined in a cage, to some degree? Organizational leaders are also in that cage. Some of them may want to wear long hair and not wear a business suit and, I don't know, paint their fingernails in a particular way. What would happen if you role modeled some of the behavior that you're hoping to see? So in other words, rather than solely relying on formal policy, what would it look like if you did some individual role modeling? Because we know one of the levers to change organizational culture is through leader behavior. And if you can role model that, that might go much further than just a casual Fridays.

Ella Washington 36:26
Absolutely. Well, you know, I really do hope that organizational leaders are listening and brave enough to challenge the status quo. And that definition you provided at the beginning around what does it mean to be conservative? I think that really stuck with me, you know. And if DEI is all about at least interrogating the status quo and elevating humanity in the workplace, we gotta be able to ask those questions. And so, you know, in my work, Dr. Opie, I like to think about what's possible. Because, as you know, DEI is hard work. It's, it takes a toll. And for me, I like to think about, you know, what would a workplace utopia look like? And not because we can go to a world of unicorn and butterflies, but what is it that we're working to change? Right. What are some of the things that in the future, we'd like to see in our organizations or our children's organizations? And so, we'd like to close by asking you, what does workplace utopia look like in your world? What are the workplaces we're trying to create?

Tina Opie 37:30
So yeah, I think I want to go to a workplace where no one else is othered. I think it's Bell Hooks. And what I, what she was getting at and what I'm meaning is that I want to be able to go to work and feel as though I can get my work done. I can fully express myself in a way that is aligned with who I am. And we can, we can do that for each other. So, Dr. Washington, you call me doctor; just call me Tina. So, you mentioned before that many times people want to be postracial. And I would say, no, I want people to see my Blackness. I'm very proud of being a Black woman. I want to be post-racial devaluation. And that for me is about, that's what the workplace utopia would be, is if we could present ourselves and I don't have to worry about being devalued because of something that is identity relevant to me.

Ella Washington 38:35
So in thinking about unpopular opinions, you know, what is the difference between being well groomed and being professional?

Tina Opie 38:43
I do want to make sure that we disentangle grooming from identity alteration, because we do have to work together. So if this person comes in funky, and that person has on so much perfume that my eyes are watering, it's gonna be difficult to have a team meeting. So I think we have to understand what are those constraints and boundaries and parameters that we need in the workplace, so that we can effectively work together? Because you know somebody will show up butt naked or in some clear clothes or something, looking like -- I used to say, "Please look like you're going to the boardroom, not the club." And I know you might say, "Tina, you told people that?" Yes, I did. Because I do think that is a rule for me, or not a rule; that's a boundary that is applied equally to everyone. It's, I'm not saying women, cover up. I'm saying, look, if you know what your club attire is, don't wear that to the boardroom. That's different than saying, this particular class of people, I need you all to change yourself, alter your identity so that you align with these norms. Does that make sense?

Camille Lloyd 39:55
It does. And, you know, that's one thing we wanted to ask you about is class. How does class connect in this conversation around professionalism?

Tina Opie 40:05
Oh my gosh, it is so important to recognize the role of class. When I, I was, I just had dinner with someone the other day, and she is in the art field. And she was saying how you have to pay for certain things in order to even get audience with the people who are buying these pieces of art that are millions and millions and millions of dollars. I can't roll with that. And I'm middle class, OK. When, when someone is at a lower socioeconomic status, first of all, there can be additional pressure that they are experiencing because they really do need that job. And so that's when you have employers, especially if we're talking about hourly workers. So there's wage theft, where you were told, for example, that you are going to be paid overtime, but, and you do the overtime, but then when it comes time to it, they don't pay you. The -- in that situation, research and, and literature and anecdotal evidence suggests that they are very much subjected to whatever the employer says they have to do to be considered professional.

Tina Opie 41:23
You need to show up five minutes early. You need to only wear this kind of uniform, and you have to wear it -- think about that. People, oftentimes, the positions where they're paying lower pay have uniforms. They're not even allowed to dress a particular way, because they need to be clearly identified sometimes as the staff, as a support, as the help. Let's just think about that. You can't even wear your own clothes. Now for some people, wearing uniform is a, as a benefit because it saves money. You don't have to buy expensive clothes. But I do think it's important to recognize, the role of class is huge.

Tina Opie 42:03
I wasn't exposed to certain levels of revenue and money until I was a freshman in college. I made the president's list, which meant we got to go to the president's house. And he made the mistake, well, he said we could go wherever we wanted. I immediately said, "I want to see his closet." Because for me, when I watch movies and everything, that is where -- I sat there, and I said, "Whoa, this closet is bigger than apartments!" And you, class, it's, there's a certain level of exposure that, to different things that you just don't get if you're from a lower socioeconomic status. But also people from, who are from higher economic status levels don't get exposed to some of the things that I know.

Tina Opie 42:54
And so we have this valuation of what wealthy people want, of how wealthy people behave. And I think we have to really challenge that, because there's something that can be learned from people who have had -- I mean you want to try to balance a budget, talk to a mother who has had to raise a family on very little money but somehow manages to always feed everybody. Everybody's clean, the house is immaculate. That's who you need to be talking to you, not somebody -- only talking to somebody who has had a nanny, a housekeeper, a chef. Come on. We can learn so much if we just integrated our perspectives on what and who we valued.

Camille Lloyd 43:37
Dr. Opie, I've enjoyed our conversation and this discussion. Can you tell us, our listeners where they can find more about your work and also just follow you?

Tina Opie 43:48
Thank you so much. So I am @drtinaopie on all of my social media channels, and then you can find me at

Camille Lloyd 43:58
Thank you so much again for joining us on Cultural Competence.

Tina Opie 44:02
Thank you so much for having me.

Camille Lloyd 44:06
That's our podcast. To subscribe to Cultural Competence from any podcast app, just search "Cultural Competence." You can learn more about the Gallup Center on Black Voices by visiting Cultural Competence is directed by Curtis Grubb and produced by Justin McCarthy. I'm Camille Lloyd.

Ella Washington 44:23
And I'm Dr. Ella Washington.

Camille Lloyd 44:25
Thanks for tuning in to Cultural Competence. A diversity and inclusion podcast.

Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030