Natural Hairstyles, Like an Afro, Limits Job Opportunities for Black Women: Study
Wed, April 21, 2021

Natural Hairstyles, Like an Afro, Limits Job Opportunities for Black Women: Study


Every woman has natural beauty, regardless of her size, features, or shape. However, because of extreme social standards, some women look at themselves through medical cosmetic procedures, layers of makeup, and a deflated sense of worth. Our standards are so culturally ingrained and remarkably skewed that they form bias without us being always aware of it. For instance, a new study found that Black women with natural hairstyles, such as curly afros, twists, or braids, are less likely to get jobs because they are perceived as less professional than those who straighten their hair.

Hair discrimination in the hiring process

The findings, which appeared in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, provide evidence that social bias against natural Black hairstyles exists in the workplace. To come up with such findings, a team of researchers from Duke University, North Carolina recruited participants of different races and asked them to assume the role of recruiters. Profiles of black and white female job candidates were presented to them and they were then asked to rate the candidates based on competence, professionalism, and other factors.

Results show that Black women with natural hairstyles received lower scores on competence and professionalism. They were also less likely to be recommended for interviews compared to other types of candidates: White women with curly hair, white women with straight hair, and Black women with straightened hair.

In another experiment, two groups of participants rated the same job candidate, who was a Black woman. The first group saw the woman with natural hair while the second group saw her with straight hair. It shows that the second group saw the job candidate as more professional. They also defined her as more respectable, refined, and polished. Having straight hair, she was also more strongly recommended for an interview.

Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, a management professor and a senior associate dean at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, explains via that the impact of a woman’s hairstyle may seem a minute to others yet it’s already a serious consideration for Black women. It could even contribute to a lack of representation for Blacks in some organizational settings. She added that historically, whites have been the dominant social group in many Western societies. This created a benchmark for a professional appearance that is based on the physical appearance of whites. In terms of women’s hair, the standard is a straightened hair.



Expenditure on hair straighteners

It appears that the world’s obsession with sleeker locks shows no signs of slowing. Another study by American cosmetics company Aveda found 63% of working women in the UK alone straighten their hair every day. Meanwhile, Statista shows the number of people purchasing hair straighteners in Great Britain from 2013 to 2018, by expenditure. An estimated 377,000 people spent €50 or more on hair straighteners in 2018. About 356,000 people spent €25 to € 49 while 321,000 people spent €10 to €24 in the same period. 

Some hair-straightening processes, though, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the US alone and can cause scalp disease, hair breakage, and other health complications. Rosette went on to say that when a Black woman chooses to straighten her hair, it should not be because of a burden to conform to the criteria set by society but because of her personal preference. 
Lifestyle site Natural Hair Nysa also conducted a survey. It asked participants, “If you could describe Afro-textured hair in one word, what would that be?” About 18% described it as curled/curly, 10% said it’s kinky, 8% considers it coarse, 7% said it’s thick, and another 7% considers it beautiful and alike. Some descriptions in the “Others” (51%) category included “eclectic,” “diverse,” “black,” “versatile,” and “unique.” On the other hand, the negative characterizations of African-American hair incorporated words, such as “nappy,” “wooly,” “hard,” “ugly,” “rough,” and “disgusting.”

The respondents for the Natural Hair Nysa survey were 58% female, 41% male, and 1% preferred not to say their gender. As to ethnicities, 55% of respondents are white, 17% Asian/Pacific Islander, 16% Black or African American, 6% Hispanic or Latino, 1% Native American or American Indian, 4% mixed ethnicity, and 1% prefer not to say.



Hair texture and perception of professionalism

The researchers noted that when the profiles were considered for a job in an ad agency, the candidates’ hair texture didn’t affect whether they would be recommended for interviews as well as their perception of professionalism. This could be because the advertising industry is viewed as a more creative industry compared to consulting, which is perceived to have less rigid dress standards.

Removing bias through blind hiring

Rosette said that some organizations go to great lengths of stripping away biographical information, such as the person’s name and other clues of their race or gender, from their application materials. A simple way to implement blind recruitment is to assign a team member who is not involved in the hiring so they will anonymize the information of every candidate. They are also assigned to create a template that highlights each person’s work experience, degree, skills, and other important information related to the job role. While it has its disadvantages, such as extending the application screening stage, disrupting diversity goals, and preventing a candidate’s personality from coming across in the hiring process, blind recruitment is still an effective way to overcome the biases that hiring team members may unconsciously have.

Several states and cities in the US have also passed legislation to prohibit discrimination against natural hairstyles for Black people in public schools and at work. Federal legislators have likewise drafted the same bills to prohibit hair-based race discrimination in the United States. Rosette, however, said that the changes are fairly recent and have not been widely implemented yet as they are supposed to be. This is why their findings show that racial discrimination based on natural hair can still occur in the workplace. The authors hope that their work can inform new practices and policies for companies to make sure they are considering applicants equally and not miss out on top talent.

Our hair is considered as an extension of ourselves. It would be nice, therefore, to live in a world where people can express themselves through their hair without having to “tame” it for others.