An Inclusive Professionalism

Jamila Benkato
J.D. Candidate 2016, UCI Law

Anna Bennett
J.D. Candidate 2014, UCI Law

The October 28th email from main campus’ Career Center started with an innocent enough subject line: “Do interviews stress you out?” They do—but not as much as gender stereotyping and sexism. The email suggested that women “make a first great impression” by donning “leg-lengthening heels,” a “feminine top,” and a “tailored skirt.” By using a before-and-after picture that suggested women have to be 1) feminine and 2) attractive in order to get a job, UCI’s Career Center played into an old and problematic discourse about the role and identity of women in the workplace. This discourse in many ways overlaps with what is known as rape culture—a culture that normalizes, tolerates, and condones rape and sexual assault. Rape culture insists that women know their place as well as behave and dress in ways that are acceptable and attractive to men. Furthermore, this email clearly did not consider how damaging its “conform to gender stereotypes in order to succeed” message could appear to undergraduate students who might be questioning their gender identity.

Women face sexual harassment in just about every professional field. This is especially true in fields dominated by men and male professional networks, such as science, technology, engineering, and math (“STEM fields”). UCI has amazing programs in STEM fields, and sends female students (both graduate and undergraduate) into firms, labs, hospitals, and research facilities around the country. In these fields, and many others, evaluators are largely male. The Career Center’s email tells those women that they must sexualize their appearance in order to be professional. Their value, in part, relies on their ability to appear as feminine as possible. “Leg-lengthening” is not neutral or ambiguous. In our cultural setting, this says: “To make a first impression good enough to get a job, you need to be attractive. Long legs are attractive. Your interviewer will notice and appreciate your long legs, and this will contribute to your acceptability as a candidate.”

Maybe you are not bothered by the messages that UCI’s Career Center sends to undergraduates and non-law grad students. UCI Law’s Career Development Office was quick to reject the Career Center’s email, and remind us that UCI Law does not stand for the kinds of stereotypes inherent in the Career Center’s message. By all accounts, their message was excellent. But that doesn’t mean that these realities don’t affect women working in the law. Many female law students rightfully worry about gender dynamics in their future legal careers. I want to be valued for everything other than my sexuality. I want to feel free to present myself in a way that I find appropriate, even if it is not particularly feminine.

Most of all, I want to work in a field that is inclusive and accepts a wide array of identities. It is frustrating to think about future interviews or positions where the standards for female professionalism reflect the standards in the Career Center’s email. Part of that reaction has to do with personality and personal history; a larger part is righteous indignation that my femininity may be evaluated along with my academic, intellectual, and professional credentials in a way that masculinity is usually not. UCI Law, despite our aspirations otherwise, exists in this reality. But we do not have to accept it. “Professionalism” does not have to be gendered.

UCI Law is uniquely positioned to be a model in this and many other areas. There is no “the way it’s always been” here attitude. Instead, we have a progressive administration motivated to propel UCI Law to the top of every conceivable list. There are number of proactive things we can do to make UCI Law a model of inclusivity, beginning with taking a non-gendered approach to teaching professionalism. Other ideas include adopting gender-neutral bathroom facilities; providing prospective students with resources about gender-inclusive offices, facilities, and advisors on campus; and connecting students with professional groups that represent gender identity minorities. While we recognize that one school will not change the face of the legal profession as a whole, we should not be satisfied until we know that we have done our best to tell the legal profession that we can be excellent, effective lawyers in whatever professional attire we choose to wear.