Black women’s hair in professional spaces has been a topic of debate for years. Black women often face discrimination in their professional lives because of their hair. Whether we’re at school, at work, in the lab or just minding our business, someone always has something to say. In this post, we explore the relationship between us, our hair, and professionalism.
What is professionalism?
‘Professionalism’ is a social construct used to determine standards for behaviour or appearance, which can differ depending on the space you are in (1). The concept of professionalism is generally considered to be rooted in racial bias, where closer proximity to Whiteness is ‘good’ and ‘proper’ and closer proximity to Blackness is viewed as 'unkempt' and 'undesirable' (2). Rules for professionalism range from smart casual dress to ensuring that you always look ‘neat and tidy’ which can be subjective and often excludes natural Black hair and hairstyles. In many instances, there are numerous unspoken rules that, if followed, can help you seem more professional to your peers. However, it is hard to follow these rules if you don’t know what they are. Unfortunately, many Black people are left out of the loop but that is a conversation for another day.
Professionalism through the Black Lens
A social psychology study by McCluney and her colleagues found that to fit in in professional spaces, Black people use racial code-switching to adjust aspects of themselves to mirror the dominant group - White people (2). Black people tend to alter their style of speech, their preferred name for work, and their hairstyle to manage their image and to conform to the dominant group's presentation. The study found that Black people who code-switch are consistently perceived as more professional by both their Black and White colleagues, although this may come with social and psychological costs (2). Constantly code-switching to seem more professional can be emotionally draining as it creates internal tension between our self-expression and social acceptance (3). This can have negative consequences on our mental well-being.
How does our hair affect the way others see us?
The way that Black women are seen and treated in professional spaces can change based on how others view our hair. Naturally textured kinky or coily hair is often labeled unprofessional and, in some cases, natural hairstyles may even violate workplace dress codes (4). Multiple studies on race-based hair discrimination or ‘hair bias’ have found that Black women wearing their natural hair face a number of challenges including microaggressions, hiring discrimination, and even being sent home from work or school because of their hair (5,6). Unfortunately, hair bias is a common issue. The ‘Good Hair’ study found that although White men and women showed the highest level of bias against Black hair, all racial groups showed at least a moderate level of hair bias (7).
Hair bias even exists within the Black community. In a 2015 study by Opie and Phillips, Black female participants rated Black women with natural hair more negatively than their White counterparts. Black women with Afrocentric hair were considered to be more dominant and less professional by other Black women (8). Hair bias within the Black community is commonly known as texturism.
In the UK, a joint report by Pantene, Black Minds Matter and Project Embrace found that 93% of Black people have experienced microaggressions related to their natural hair (9). The most common microaggression, reported by 46% of the participants, was hair touching without permission. The report also found that the top 3 places where people felt that they faced hair-based discrimination were at school, at work, and in job interviews. The 2023 CROWN study found that Black women’s hair is 2.5 times more likely to be seen as unprofessional and over 20% of Black women aged between 25 and 34 had been sent home from work or school because of their hair (10). Another study by Koval and Rosette on natural hair bias in job recruitment found that Black women with natural hairstyles were considered to be less professional, less competent, and were less likely to be recommended for interview compared to White women and Black women with straightened hairstyles (11).
How does hair bias affect the way we see ourselves?
Our awareness of hair bias as a barrier to employment can impact how Black women navigate the hiring process. Due to the clear preference for straightened hair, 54% of Black women feel that they must have straightened hair to be successful in job interviews, and nearly half of Black women under 34 years old feel pressured to have a profile picture or headshot with straight hair (10). Even after we’ve been hired, many Black women choose to change their hairstyle to fit White beauty norms and ‘professional’ standards as a result of experiencing frequent microaggressions and the fear of negative consequences in their professional lives (12).
The way we style our hair impacts how we feel about ourselves and how we interact with the world around us. Black women’s hair has been linked to our self-esteem and identity (13). Textured, natural hair and hairstyles link us to our Afro-Caribbean heritage and can communicate our self-identity and values (4). Pressure to conform to White beauty standards to meet arbitrary professionalism rules can negatively impact how we see or think about ourselves (14). However, choosing to wear our hair in natural styles can be empowering. A study by Ellis-Hervey and her colleagues found that Black women felt more in control of themselves when they chose to wear their hair in a natural state compared to having straightened hair (15).
Standards for what is considered professional have expanded in recent years, especially with the introduction of policies like The CROWN Act (2019) which is a civil rights bill that aims to prevent discrimination against natural Black hairstyles in the United States (16). Campaigns to raise awareness around hair bias such as ‘The CROWN Coalition’ and ‘My Hair Won’t be Silenced’ have been working to help reduce hair-related microaggressions and discrimination over the last few years. Despite these advances, hair bias still exists, and it continues to negatively impact Black women’s experiences in professional spaces. Hair bias can be overt or subtle but there is no denying that it is present in society.
Reducing this hair bias is a big task considering its roots in racism. Hair bias is an institutional issue and solving this problem requires institutions to reflect on their policies and take action. As individuals, we can help by speaking up and drawing attention to moments when we experience hair bias. This can help to raise awareness of the issue to leaders and decision-makers in our organisations. If you are comfortable and able to, wearing your natural hair or braided hairstyles in professional spaces may help to encourage other Black women around you to do the same. It is always much easier to challenge discriminatory practices as part of a group.
Until the day that hair bias is no longer a barrier for Black women in professional spaces, it is important to take care of yourself, especially if you have experienced or continue to experience hair-based discrimination. Speaking to family, friends, a community of Black women (like the BWiS network), or a therapist can help you process and develop coping strategies to deal with any discrimination you might come across.
Black hair in its natural state or in a braided hairstyle can be just as professional as straightened hair. Your hair should never hold you back. It doesn’t matter what your hair looks like, you are always beautiful and worthy of respect.
By Esther Ansah, Blog Writer
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