Conferences, professionalism, and all those unwritten rules


Conference flickr photo by Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Next week is the SLA 2018 conference and I’m already starting to worry about packing. What am I going to wear? What’s the weather going to be like. Do I need to wear a suit? Are any of my suits clean? What about shoes? Will it be monsoon weather?

These are things I ask myself before any conference: How many days will I be actually conferencing? (How many work outfits do I need?) What will the weather be like? (Do I need layers? Will it be hot?) Am I presenting/running a meeting? (Do I need a suit or something else kind of nice?)

Conference attire and conduct is so hard to talk about in terms of professionalism because it’s a nebulous definition and often used to exclude people. Oh you’re too casual? Unprofessional. Oh you’re wearing a suit when nobody else is? You’re out of touch with “professional norms”. You’re wearing heels? Trying too hard. You’re wearing flat? Not professional enough. Let’s also not forget that professional dress norms are historically inherently sexist.

So my advice to new (and old) conference attendees – particularly those going to SLA next week – is this: Wear what makes you feel comfortable, professional, and powerful. If that means a suit – then do it. If that means jeans and tennis shoes, OK! Heels? That’s cool. You will be on your feet a lot, you will be wandering around rooms with unpredictable climate control, you might be outside with East Coast humidity. So do what works for you. For most people at SLA in particular, this veers from business casual to professional business attire (suits) and it will vary. If you don’t feel comfortable in a suit and you’re not on the executive board, you’ll probably be fine. (Even if you’re on the board, you’ll probably be fine.) If you feel more comfortable in a suit, then wear it.

Which then brings me to what we as colleagues need to remember – these rules (as describe above) are really arbitrary and these norms are really meant to discriminate against those who don’t know the vague rules. I recognize that I’m in a position of privilege because I’m established in my career and my organization, that I’m a kind of hip West Coast person working for a public university who dresses pretty masculine. As a result, I get a lot of leeway other people don’t get. If you’re from a more formal organization, remember your workplace norms are not universal. If you’re a more formal person, remember that your personal preferences aren’t universal. As we talk about barriers to the profession, we need to look at small things we can change now – and nonsense like “oh you must wear pantyhose” is low hanging fruit.

I still don’t know what I’m going to wear, but I also know whatever happens it will be fine. And if it’s not, I’ll know which colleagues are arbitrary snobs and need some help understanding that “professionalism” is often a form of gatekeeping.

See y’all in Baltimore!

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