Professionalism: a shapeless ideal

Professionalism is a term that I’ve encountered in increasing volume as I’m gearing towards graduation; the professional; the professional workplace; being professional. I used to think a professional was simply someone who is remunerated for their work and service, and professionalism was merely the code of conduct in which a professional acts. However, with the wide variety of professions out there comes a wide variety of professionals. If professionalism is just the code of conduct in which a professional behaves, why do we place so much emphasis on being professional? Is being professional indicative of skill? Is it right to apply this code of conduct to every individual? What is professionalism?

Kultgen describes a profession as not only relating to the learned professions of medicine, law and architecture, but also more broadly encompasses all occupations “that so label themselves and fret over their professionalism” (Kultgen, J 1988). The thing that I find to be particularly interesting in Kultgen’s quote, however, is this notion of one “fret[ting] over their professionalism”. It indicates to me that professionalism is something worth fretting over; that it’s something of value. Kultgen continues this thought by stating that “‘profession’ and cognate terms have been used as ideological weapons in the struggle for social position” (Kultgen, J 1988). We can see this in society as we have bestowed varying levels of societal power and privileges to individuals depending on one’s profession. Dr. Kate Bowles notes, in her own observations of others, that professional “is about the boundaries that keep us apart from one another” (Bowles, K 2016). It’s utilised to keep the status quo.

We see this being put into practice in many professions. Dr. Bowles recounts an interaction with a nurse educator, in which said educator remarked, “it [is] unprofessional for nurses to share any detail about their lives with patients, even if this [makes] patients feel more comfortable and trusting” (Bowles, K 2016). That distance between nurse and patient is done so to create clear boundaries for various reasons, safety being a prominent one. These boundaries in nursing are also enforced to provide a better and more efficient working environment. Torabizadeh et al. note that, “Nurses with positive professional values… are more inclined to work responsibly and achieve better results than their peers” (Torabizadeh et al 2018). What’s interesting to me is that in a profession built on care such as nursing, an organisational distinction between professionalism/professional standards and morality/ethics is enforced. Torabizadeh et al. found through their research of professional values in nurses in Iran that, “based on the mean scores, the dimensions can be ranked thus in order of importance: justice, caring, trust, professionalism, and activism” (Torabizadeh et al 2018) with justice ranked the highest and activism ranked the least important value. With this metric, does that mean protest work and protestors should be seen as less professional, and therefore following Kultgen’s thinking, less valuable in and to society? I also find it interesting that justice and activism were noted as separate values in Torabizadeh et al’s study. It’s also important to note that definitions of what constitutes justice/activism/morality are as fluid and subjective as professionalism, and that my own understandings are influenced by my own background and context.

This professional distance can also be seen in other industries; education being a prominent one. Student-teacher relationships are an integral and important factor to education. These relationships, however, have seen increasing levels of scrutiny due to the intimate nature of the relationship between student and teacher. For example, in 2018 the NSW Government introduced changes to the special care laws that “make it an offence for teachers to have sex with a student aged 16 or 17” (NSW Government, 2018). It’s also interesting and important to note that these changes were to further expand the definition of “teacher” to be “people employed at the school who have care of or authority over students” (NSW Government, 2018). With that in mind, a sexual relationship between a teacher and a student aged 16 or 17 is against society’s standards (illegal) and therefore deemed unprofessional. Now I want to state that with this specific example, I’m aware that other factors outside of this student-teacher dynamic are at play; namely a difference in age. As De-Malach states, “when adults are involved, dependent children are exposed to abuse, and in any case the imbalance of power cannot make for an equal and just relationship.” (De-Malach, N 2016) But even outside the context of high school, we can look towards how universities enforce policy to maintain a professional distance between student and teacher.

One of the key differences between the student-teacher relationship at a university institution, compared to a high school, is that both the student and teacher are socially accepted and seen as adults, thereby giving credence to the notion of a consenting, intimate relationship between student and teacher. If we removed the titles of student and teacher, society would have no issue of there being a consenting, intimate relationship between two adults. Therefore it’s interesting that all universities have policies in place to deter these relationships from occurring in the first place. It’s important to note, however, that unlike high schools, consenting, intimate relationships between staff and student are admissible (at least in the case of the University of Wollongong and Monash University), given specific forms or procedures are adhered to; again, an indicator of this professional distance. Monash University disagrees with De-Malach in that the “imbalance of power” De-Malach is writing about is still present even if the nature of the relationship changes from child-adult to adult-adult. Monash University states in their policy on staff/student relationships, “because of the inherent nature of staff/student roles, you are in a position of power relative to a student irrespective of the student’s age and maturity.” (Monash University, 2018) The University of Wollongong believes that a relationship between staff and student, although admissible under specific conditions, “may give rise to actual or perceived inequalities of power and/or a significant risk of conflicts of interest” with the University of Wollongong defining a conflict of interest as a “divergence between the individual interests of a staff member and their professional obligation to the University.” (University of Wollongong, 2019) With this in mind, we can see the definition and expectations for what professionalism is and that it is more than just what society determines is appropriate or not. Professionalism seems to also be inherently tied to an adherence and compliance to the workplace rules. Professionalism also seems to demand one to value their institution’s values above their own.

Professionalism has changed in both the understanding and representation of what it is. If professionalism is a product of what society deems to be appropriate, or at least is influenced by societal opinions, then we can also see how professionalism transforms between cultures. De-Malach notes that “sexual relations between teachers and students, has been part of the pedagogical world throughout history” (De-Malach, N 2016) specifically pointing to Ancient Greece and the Middle Ages. Although such relations, as discussed in the previous paragraph, are deemed to be unprofessional and inappropriate to the professional workplace today due to, in-part, their taboo nature in society, sexual relations between students and teachers was something that was socially and openly acknolwedged within those cultures (i.e Ancient Greece). This leads me to two thoughts; either the concept of professionalism is only applicable to modernity or that the values that make professionalism are not static and subject to constant change. If professionalism is not static, but is in fact dynamic, we can see how different workplaces view professionalism differently.

Dr. Bowles notes that professionalism may extend outside the boundaries of employment. She notes “when doctors refuse to return children to offshore detention centres because they have a professional commitment not to place children in harm’s way, we get a look at something beyond the ordinary verticals of career and employability” (Bowles, K 2016). It’s interesting to me that Dr. Bowles conceptualises “professional commitment” to be something that can transcend employment; the very foundation of what is supposed to define a professional.

It’s clear to me that professionalism is a vague, dynamic ideal. It’s a concept that relates to a code of conduct for people to follow when working. It’s also a contract and a demand by the institution to place specific values above the individual’s. Professionalism is an ideological weapon to cement a position within the social hierarchy, whilst also being a form of distinction between individuals. It’s both an enforced boundary and what society determines to be right and wrong. It’s seemingly understood by everyone, yet it takes a different shape and form depending on when and where it’s applied. Torabizadeh et al. notes that “variety in nursing roles increases the need for consistency and homogeneity in nurses’ values, knowledge, and personal skills” (Torabizadeh et al 2018) and I think this is applicable to every role that advertises a need for professional skills. I think professional skills is an unattainable ideal; it’s too varied and too fluid to be properly understood. In a world where we’re inundated with the desire for professionalism across every sector, industry, profession and career, we must ask ourselves; what is professionalism?

Keiden Cheung



Larson, M. (1977). The Rise of Professionalism: A Sociological Analysis. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kultgen, J. (1977). Ethics and Professionalism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp.3-19.

Bowles, K. (2016). Networked professionals. [Blog] Music for Deckchairs. Available at: [Accessed 27 Oct. 2019].

De-Malach, N. (2016). The Dangerous Staircase: Exploring Sexuality Between Teachers and Students. Educational Studies, 52(4), pp.313-328.

Sambell, K., Brown, S. and Graham, L. (2017). Professionalism in Practice : Key Directions in Higher Education Learning, Teaching and Assessment. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Cruess, S. and Cruess, R. (1997). Professionalism must be taught. BMJ, 315(7123), pp.1674-1677.

Torabizadeh, C., Darari, F. and Yektatalab, S. (2018). Operating room nurses’ perception of professional values. Nursing Ethics, 26(6), pp.1765-1776.

NSW Government. (2019). New laws to better protect students from sexual predators. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Nov. 2019].

Staff/Student Personal Relationships Procedure. (2018). [ebook] Melbourne: Monash University. Available at: [Accessed 5 Nov. 2019]. (2019). Close Personal Relationships Guidelines. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Nov. 2019].


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s