Let’s talk about the sassiest nonverbal. Let’s talk about the act done by the tallest of runway models to the smallest of cute toddlers. Let’s talk about the hair flip.
Well actually, let’s talk about hair in the workplace.
It’s no surprise that when we talk about getting a job, we talk about appearance. Self-presentation is definitely important. But where do professional standards come from? One answer to this question might be policy. Legal scholar, Angela Onwuachi Willig, analyzed cases in which women’s hair was the bases for reprimand. And who were the women that were most likely to be involved in these cases? You guessed it– African American women.
A quick google search of ideal workplace hairstyles, and what kind of results do you see? Straight hair worn down and tucked behind your ears, an organized bun, or relaxed but well-managed curls. All suitable options for the hardworking woman—well, the hard working white woman at least.
Willig’s study addresses Title IX, explaining that discrimination goes further than a woman’s right to not wear makeup. Our workplaces are not only plagued with gendered norms, they’re plagued with gender norms typically associated with white women. What is the company policy on dreadlocks? Afros? Kinky curls that can only be held down after a draining battle with blood, sweat, tears, and tons of product? Pressure to conform to these appearance policies is the exact burden that Willig describes, and the exact burden that violates the rights upheld by Title IX. This pressure is too real because to resist it is to welcome career-impacting consequences. The result: an average work day that begins at 7:15 am with fine tooth comb and a hot iron. Why do we look at braids with disdain? Braids! A style we spent a large chunk of our adolescence styling on our Barbie dolls.
This is unacceptable. Keeping our hair down is literally keeping us down. Why are we focusing so much time and energy on hair, instead of focusing on killing the next sales presentation? Why are these expressions of individualism and culture being stifled? This doesn’t only apply to black women– although if you’ve never had to run away from your mom as she tried to hot comb your relentless curls, consider yourself lucky. It applies anybody who’s putting in extra effort to uphold standards that are completely unrelated to their actual work performance.
Fortunately, there are ways we can begin to address this problem. For starters, let’s shift the emphasis on producing, not primping. If there are specific policies in your organization that address appearance, check to make sure that they’re inclusive to women of all races and ethnicities. If you’re an employee and you encounter a disagreement with a higher-up about what constitutes “extreme” or “unkempt” hair, understand that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Manual on Race Discrimination is on your side. Speak with your organization’s human resources department or coordinator and keep a detailed record of all pertinent conversations.
I say enough. And if you’re like me, and love looking into a crowd of people and seeing heads of diversity, then tell the world you’ve had enough too. Say it loud, say it proud: a woman’s hair, afro or otherwise, has nothing to do with her professional competence.
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