Black women with natural hairstyles, such as braids, afros or twists, are less likely than white women or black women with straightened hair to be interviewed for jobs, especially in industries that dictate a more conservative appearance.
These findings, from a forthcoming study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, show evidence that natural hair bias infiltrates the workplace and perpetuates race discrimination, said Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, a management professor and a senior associate dean who conducted the research at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.
Hair discussions might seem trivial to non-Black women, “but for Black women, it’s a serious consideration and may contribute to the lack of representation for Blacks in some organizational settings,” Rosette said. “In the aftermath of the George Floyd murder and the corresponding protests, many organizations have rightly focused on tactics to help eradicate racism at systemic and structural levels. But our individually held biases often precede the type of racist practices that become embedded and normalized within organizations.”
To detect natural hair bias against, researchers recruited participants of different races and asked them to assume the role of recruiters screening job candidates.
Participants were given profiles of Black and white female candidates and asked to rate them on professionalism, competence and other factors. Black women with natural hairstyles received lower scores on professionalism and competence and were not recommended as frequently for interviews compared with three other types of candidates: Black women with straightened hair and white women with curly or straight hair.
In one experiment, two groups of participants evaluated the same job candidate, a Black woman. One group saw a photo of the candidate with natural hair; the other group saw her with straight hair. The group who saw a candidate with straight hair rated her as more professional—defined as more polished, refined and respectable—and they more strongly recommended her for an interview.
“In many Western societies, whites have historically been the dominant social group and, as a result, the standard for professional appearance is often based on the physical appearance of whites. For women’s hair, that benchmark is having straightened hair,” Rosette said.
The natural hair bias varied by industry, however. When study participants were evaluated for jobs in consulting, they subjected to discrimination. But black women with natural hair didn’t experience the same bias when they applied for a job in advertising. The study’s authors believe this may be because advertising is viewed as a more creative industry with less rigid dress norms.
That hair discrimination still exists in 2020 shouldn’t come as a surprise. It was just three years ago that the U.S. Army eased restrictions on natural hairstyles for Black soldiers. In recent months, several cities and states have passed the Crown Act, prohibiting discrimination against natural hairstyles for Black people at work and public school. Federal legislators have drafted similar bills to ban hair-based race discrimination under U.S. law.
“Although there have been some policy changes protecting Black people from discrimination based on their natural hair, these changes are fairly recent and not as widely implemented as they should be,” Rosette said. “This work illustrates that racial discrimination based on hair can occur, and we hope it can inform new policies and practices for firms to ensure they’re considering candidates equally, and furthermore, aren’t missing out on top talent.”
Some straightening processes can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars and can cause hair breakage, scalp disease and other health complications.
“When a Black woman chooses to straighten her hair, it should be a personal preference, not a burden to conform to a set of criteria for which there could be adverse consequences,” she said.