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July 22, 2021

By Jen Hoffman, Service Navigation Coordinator


All my hard work had finally paid off. After investing hours of my time after work scouring job search websites in search of a role that aligned with my career goals, writing dozens of cover letters specific to each application and using my hard-earned PTO for phone interviews, I was offered an opportunity to interview in person.  

My energy shifted from the time and effort it took for me to get here, to focusing on how I am going to bring my best self to the table. That includes choosing the right outfit to look professional. At this stage in my life, picking out what to wear for the interview comes with little effort. I own a single set of clothes specifically and only for interviews. As I start to iron my attire, I practice answering interview questions in my head. “Why do you want to work for this organization?  What are your strengths and weaknesses? Why should we hire you?” I chuckle to myself thinking, “If I don’t wear this outfit, I can tell you exactly why you wouldn’t hire me.” 

The kitten heels have not seen daylight in a few years. I pulled them out and used my Armor All leather wipes, typically reserved for my wingtip brogues and Jordans, to wipe the dust and other remnants of hiding my truth during my last interview.   

I arrived at the interview 15 minutes early, wearing my freshly pressed outfit and holding copies of my resume. As I walk through the door, I am flooded with anxiety. Not because I feel unprepared for the interview or concerned that I lack the skills and experience needed for the job; the anxiety stems from a fear that they will see through the protection I hoped my outfit offered and I wouldn’t get hired because they know I am a lesbian.   

For myself, and so many other members of the LGBTQ+ community, being selected for in-person interviews is simultaneously exciting and terrifying. The stress of interviewing goes beyond properly answering questions, being the right fit for the company or having the required skillset. For myself, who visually presents as an androgynous lesbian, and many other members in the LGBTQ+ community, merely existing in the world immediately rips us out of the closet. A closet that some of our fellow community members can safely hide in.  

But fear doesn’t exist only for those who visually challenge the notion of “normal” like myself. My LGBTQ+ family who visually present cisgender and heterosexual experience the other side of this toxic coin. Many times, they are forced to exist under the assumption that who they love and how they identify meet that of a straight narrative.  This happens quite often to my partner. A distinct moment for her was when she shared exciting news of relocating to California at her workplace. Upon sharing the news with one of her superiors, she was offered congratulations and excitement for her next step, followed immediately by a question about what her boyfriend will do for work once they relocated. 

For queer and non-binary people, showing up authentically to work can inherently include two-fold exhaustion. First, the exhaustion that comes with combatting our society’s idea of professionalism. It happens every time we walk into a room wearing our hair and attire in a way that aligns with the most authentic version of ourselves.  

Second, by standing in our truth, we knowingly risk physical and emotional safety. Even more worrisome is knowing where you live determines whether you are protected from discrimination by the law. Currently, there are only 21 states and the District of Columbia with laws that fully protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.  

Constricting ideas of professionalism aren’t only limiting and impacting the LGBTQ+ community. Bias against hair, nails, tattoos and religious attire are just a handful of ways we limit our potential workforce with perceptions of what intelligence, creativity and hard work are supposed to look like. According to Dove’s research around the Crown Act, Black women’s hair is 3.4 times more likely to be considered unprofessional. Furthermore, the ACLU shared that 69% of women who wore a hijab reported at least one incident of discrimination, compared to 29% who did not.  

Taking steps toward a more diverse workforce is proven to elevate and enrich organizations. According to the Scientific American, spending time with people who are different from us makes us more creative, diligent and hard working—attributes we can all agree make a better worker. But ideas of professionalism can cause workplaces to have a single lens of perspective and can limit the input from POC, LGBTQ+, women and more. 

Looking back at my own experience, showing up to interviews and jobs with only fractions of my authentic self was a disservice to me and my potential employer. Having personally experienced the limitations of professionalism in my own life, I find myself wondering how many others have only partially shown up in the workplace. And in doing so, what inventions, leaders and brilliant ideas have never been able to serve humanity?  

Growing up in the Midwest, I spent many late summer nights of my childhood playing flashlight tag. Using professionalism as a guideline for hiring the best candidate is a lot like playing flashlight tag in your talent pool–your vision is inevitably limited to only where the light shines and leaves large gaps of talent being overlooked. Broadening our ideas of professionalism is one small step we can take towards dismantling current norms and provide opportunity for opening doors that generations before us never had keys for. 

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