Despite some progress over the past few years, race-based hair discrimination still remains a widespread issue for Black women in the workplace. A recent study showed that Black women’s hair was two-and-a-half times more likely to be perceived as unprofessional, and one-fifth of the Black women surveyed between the ages of 25 and 34 had been sent home from work because of their hair. Although 20 states have adopted the CROWN Act, which prohibits discrimination based on hair texture and protective styles including braids, twists, and locs, hair discrimination is not prohibited at a federal level in the U.S. To address and mitigate hair bias and discrimination, company leaders should focus on the following three areas: awareness, employee feedback, and objectivity.
Afro-textured hair is stereotyped and stigmatized around the world. Even in places where there are protections against race-based hair discrimination, Black women bear the brunt of the burden when it comes to hair bias.
In some areas, legislation is being enacted to counteract the prevalent hair discrimination many people face within workplaces and schools. An important piece of U.S. legislation that’s setting a precedent for other protections is the CROWN Act, which stands for creating a respectful and open world for natural hair. It provides protections against race-based hair bias, prohibiting discrimination based on hair texture and protective styles including braids, twists, and locs. Although 20 states have adopted the legislation, hair discrimination is not prohibited at a federal level in the U.S.
Here’s a look at the current landscape of hair discrimination in the U.S. — and strategies for leaders to mitigate it within their organizations.
How Hair Bias Manifests at Work
A 2023 CROWN Workplace Research study found that, despite some progress over the past few years, race-based hair discrimination still remains a widespread issue for Black women in the workplace. The study surveyed 2,990 female-identifying respondents within the U.S. in December 2022 and January 2023. Respondents were all part-time or full-time employees between the ages of 25 and 64 who identified as Black, Hispanic, white, or multiracial/multiethnic. The results?
- Black women’s hair was two-and-a-half times more likely to be perceived as unprofessional.
- More than half of the Black women surveyed felt like they had to wear their hair straight in a job interview to be successful. Two-thirds reported that they had changed their hair for a job interview.
- One-fifth of the Black women surveyed between the ages of 25 and 34 had been sent home from work because of their hair.
- A quarter of the Black women surveyed believe they were denied a job because of their hair.
The 2019 CROWN Workplace Research study showed similar results and found that Black women were 83% more likely to report being judged harshly because of their looks compared to other women.
Black women are often aware of the harsh penalties they can face at work for wearing natural hairstyles, but the risks involved in adhering to societal norms is becoming greater and greater. One 2015 study found that certain hair products commonly used by Black women may increase the risk of breast cancer. The popular permanent hair straighteners, called relaxers, were also found to contain hazardous chemicals, and a 2022 study linked them to uterine cancer.
Black women who choose not to use chemical straightening agents in their hair, whether for personal reasons or because of understandable fears about the long-term effects, also have to worry about hairstyle choices that will minimize the likelihood of bias. For example, clinical psychologist Donna Dockery, PhD, shared that she struggled with picking a hairstyle for her professional headshots:
I was getting professional headshots [taken] and I took a lot of time trying to figure out what I was going to do with my hair … Usually I wear my hair natural, in twist-outs or some sort of natural hairstyle, and I wasn’t sure if that would be appropriate for these headshots that I knew would be used widely … The options were: wear my natural hair, get braids, or straighten my hair. The option that I chose [was] box braids … I pulled them down into a sleek bun. To me that was a healthy middle ground … Most people probably think about what outfit they’re going to wear or finding the right photographer. The most time [for me] was spent on how I’m going to do my hair.
Texturism is the discrimination faced by individuals with kinkier, tighter-curled hair textures. Research suggests that employees with hair textures that have a proximity to white and Eurocentric hair are shown preference over those with Afro-textured hair that’s coarser and more tightly curled. And respondents to Catalyst’s recent survey of women from marginalized racial and ethnic groups in Australia, Canada, South Africa, the UK, and the U.S. reported that they’ve experienced texturism in the workplace.
How to Mitigate Hair Bias
To address and mitigate hair bias and discrimination, company leaders should focus on the following three areas:
There is still a lack of understanding regarding hair bias and texturism and the ways they manifest in the workplace. Any conversation about racial equity and supporting Black employees should include discussions about hair discrimination and texturism. Lean on the knowledge and expertise of practitioners, educators, and consultants whose work focuses on this particular issue. Managers, leaders, and anyone with decision-making power should receive ongoing training about hair bias and the instrumental role it plays in Black women’s experiences in the workplace. Employees should also receive ongoing education about hair discrimination.
It’s also vital for leaders to be intentional about the imagery that’s used when facilitating discussions. Consider the stock images that are used during workshops and presentations. Are you showcasing a wide variety of not just hairstyles but also hair textures? These seemingly minute details can serve to normalize Black hair and can interrupt unconscious bias when it comes to hairstyles we deem more acceptable and “professional.”
Host open conversations about topics like texturism and hair bias to educate your employees on how hair bias impacts employee experiences. It’s imperative to center your Black women employees’ voices when it comes to their specific and nuanced experiences.
In my DEI work, I’ve been transparent about my personal experiences with texturism and hair discrimination at different steps in my career journey. Ask your Black women employees: In what ways do micro- and macroaggressions related to hair show up in your workplace? For example, a common microaggression many Black employees experience is being asked by colleagues if they can touch their hair. There is often little thought given to how dehumanizing it is to be interrogated about a hairstyle and asked whether your hair is real.
Organizing conversations where employees can learn about the nuances of Black women’s hair experiences can be a powerful tool to improve employee understanding and mitigate some of the hair-related micro- and macroaggressions Black women experience at work. I recently moderated a panel discussion about the CROWN Act at REI Co-op to help employees gain a deeper understanding of Black women’s hair experiences. The organizer, Chandra Pointer-Titus, chair of REI’s BIPOC Inclusion Network, shared this with me when reflecting on the post-panel feedback:
The experience was powerful! It sparked open and honest engagement during the discussion and beyond. The feedback ranged from appreciation for talking about hair to “Thank you for enlightening my understanding of my colleagues.” The chat was on fire the entire hour … We have a really beautiful community with the BIPOC Inclusion Network, which includes members and allies. When we dive into conversations that are typically avoided, we all learn something about ourselves and our colleagues.
Have an equity expert review your workplace policies. Professionalism is a racial construct, so it’s important to re-evaluate corporate policies around appearance and professionalism and introduce more objectivity into your systems. Industrial organizational psychologist Myia Williams, PhD, shares that reassessing workplace policies can be an effective way to mitigate hair bias. She told me, “Organizations can have certain policies or rules related to hair or hairstyles that can result in unlawful, indirect discrimination against employees who share a particular protected characteristic.”
In what ways can you reduce the subjectivity in workplace decision-making? Integrate scorecards and rubrics into both the hiring process and advancement procedures to ensure that employees and prospective employees are being evaluated based on core competencies and not job-unrelated measures. It’s important to also ensure that workplace policies aren’t causing disparate impact.
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Hair discrimination continues to be a pervasive issue that impacts Black women’s experiences in the workplace. As with any type of bias, it’s important to continue to have conversations that center the experiences of those most impacted while providing ongoing education for all employees — particularly those with decision-making and leadership power.
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