Black Women Face Workplace Bias Over Their Hair, and Employers Can Help

Black Women Face Workplace Bias Over Their Hair, and Employers Can Help

According to a recent study by the Perception Institute, one in five black women feel social pressure to straighten their hair for work, and though all women worry about about how their hair is perceived, black women are much more likely to feel anxiety over the issue than white women are. That anxiety is apparently warranted: the Perception Institute also found that, irrespective of race, the majority of the more than 4,000 people who participated in the study demonstrated an implicit bias against black women’s (naturally) textured hair, rating it less professional than smoother hair. As the study concludes, be it overall perceptions of professionalism, first impressions during an interview, or general ideas about health and beauty, “attitudes toward black women’s hair can shape opportunities in these contexts, and innumerable others.”

Bias against black women’s textured hair can play out in a number of ways in the workplace, from everyday cultural slights and comments regarding these women’s hairstyles, to more concrete challenges such as misguided hiring decisions. And while banter in the break room surrounding a black colleague’s new hairstyle may seem like an otherwise innocuous conversation point, it may actually contribute to, or be a symptom of, a workplace culture in which black women are professionally judged over their hair.

A few years ago, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit on behalf of an African American woman alleging she’d faced racial discrimination in the workplace after her job offer was rescinded because she wore her hair in dreadlocks. The hiring decision at the heart of the case was made under the interpretation of an internal policy, which said that employees’ hairstyles “should reflect a business/professional image,” and that “no excessive hairstyles or unusual colors are acceptable.” Though the EEOC ultimately lost in court, the case still exemplifies how what may seem to be racially neutral workplace policies can negatively impact professional opportunities for black women, and it highlights the importance of diversity recruiting practices.

In our recent study, “Driving Diversity Through Talent Acquisition”, we’ve found that organizations are increasingly investing in such practices, recognizing that greater workforce representation would benefit the business. (CEB Diversity & Inclusion Leadership Council and Recruiting Leadership Council members can access that study here.)

Professional challenges attributable to hair bias are not limited to misguided hiring practices. Bias against black women’s hair also contributes to the “black ceiling,” or the unique set of socioeconomic factors which keep black women from advancing in the corporate world. According to to the research firm Catalyst, many black women can become discouraged in the workplace, particularly when faced with cultural slights regarding their hair and appearance, and such experiences can also serve as reminders of the lack of representation of other women of color, both among peers and within an organization’s leadership.

The Perception Institute and Catalyst findings, along with the EEOC lawsuit, underline the fact that inclusion must go hand in hand with diversity. As we seek more diverse workforces, we must simultaneously establish more inclusive and supportive work environments. Inclusivity should be encouraged both at the aggregate level, such as in workplace policies, as well as down to the more granular level, in the form of everyday conversations and interactions. Taking this approach may help D&I efforts more effectively address the more nuanced, intersectional challenges diverse employees face.

CEB Diversity & Inclusion Leadership Council members can get more information on effective ways to combat workplace bias and foster inclusion via our training materials on Advancing Inclusion by Overcoming Unconscious Bias.