Hair Stereotypes: Is Your Hair Holding You Back?
Paying attention to your physical appearance is essential, whether in the workplace or in daily life. Because of this, your hairstyle or color can either propel you towards or hold you back from certain opportunities. Is this necessarily discrimination, and is it legal? These are two fundamental questions many people find themselves asking today.
What Is Hair Discrimination?
Hair discrimination occurs when an employer’s hair or grooming policy negatively impacts individuals with naturally textured hair — often Black Americans and/or other persons of color — which social stereotypes might negatively portray as unclean, messy, or unprofessional. Comparatively, hair that’s straightened or chemically treated might be cast as hygienic and professional, even if that’s not intrinsically the case.
Women commonly experience hair discrimination, but even men are not exempt from this problem. While it might be easy to assume that men would undergo fewer instances of hair discrimination, men also have different types of hair and are subject to similar issues.
It makes sense that companies have guidelines regarding what employees can and can’t wear and how they should generally look. But when policies about hair disproportionately impact minorities, there’s a problem to be confronted.
Why Organizations Have Hair & Grooming Policies
If you’re an employer, it’s entirely reasonable that you’d want your employees to present themselves as clean and as professional as possible, whether in front of customers or around the office. Otherwise, it could reflect poorly on you and the company.
As a result, some standard guidelines concerning physical appearance policies include:
- Expected formality (e.g., suit and tie versus short sleeves and khakis);
- Tattoos or other body art;
- Body piercings and facial jewelry;
- Grooming and general hygiene.
Of these, hair is the most contentious since its enforcement by employers has been shown to negatively affect people of color more often than other segments of the population.
Examples of Hair Discrimination
A recent study conducted by the Dove soap brand found that Black women are 30% more likely to receive a formal grooming policy during application and orientation phases.
According to the BBC, another of the company’s studies found that Black women are also 80% more likely than white women to change their hair based on workplace expectations.
Not only do minorities experience more instances of hair discrimination throughout their lives, but women also experience it disproportionately compared to males. Here are some of the most common examples of hair discrimination in the workplace.
New research published in 2020 demonstrates that Black women with natural hairstyles face biases during the job screening process. Specifically, when wearing curly afros, braids, or twists, they’re perceived to be less professional, less competent, and less likely to be recommended for a job compared to Black women with straight hair or white women.
Furthermore, the study also found “Black women with natural hairstyles received more negative evaluations when they applied for a job in an industry with strong dress norms.”
Hair discrimination in the workplace can also extend to balding individuals since it’s often viewed as less youthful than others with hair, even though two applicants might be the same age.
Hair discrimination isn’t always racial discrimination, as was the case with the “Karen haircut” that took hold as an internet meme. Hair discrimination can also present itself if an employer requires long versus short hair for women and just the opposite for men, or when an employer uses specific haircuts to infer a person’s sexual orientation.
In some cases, hair loss can lead to hair discrimination, particularly in the case of women experiencing receding hairlines. While this can result from hormonal imbalances or simply wearing a hat too frequently, hair loss symptoms can result in employees being treated differently based on their appearance.
But in most instances, workplace hairstyle guidelines burden Black women more than any other group, which often prohibit racially-associated hairstyles like natural curls, braids, or twists.
People may feel like they’re expressing themselves if they dye their hair a vibrant, out-of-the-ordinary color such as purple, pink, fuchsia, crimson, green, or burgundy.
However, many stereotypes exist surrounding hair color, which can make their way into a company’s strict employee dress and appearance guidelines.
Employees are a reflection of a company, and employers may believe that outside-the-box hair colors can change the way customers see the company. Consequently, anything other than natural hair colors like muted brown, white blonde, or dark black might be looked down upon.
Founded in 2019 by Dove, the National Urban League, Color Of Change, and the Western Center on Law & Poverty, the CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural hair) aims to protect race-based hairstyles against discrimination.
The Act does this by “extending statutory protection to hair texture and protective styles such as braids, twists, and knots in the workplace and public schools.” Specifically, PBS reports that the Act accomplishes this by building off existing state laws, which prohibit workplace or school discrimination based on religion, gender, sexual orientation, and race.
But the CROWN Act goes further by expanding the definition of race to include “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles, like braids, locs and twists.”
Drafted and sponsored by Senator Holly Mitchell, California was the first state to sign its version of the CROWN Act into law, followed by New York State and New Jersey.
The Act was subsequently adopted in Washington State, Colorado, Virginia, Maryland, and Connecticut, and many other cities and counties around the country have enacted their versions of the CROWN Act as well. It is also gaining momentum among many other states.
Creating a Healthy Hair Appearance
The bottom line is that it’s important — and healthy — to express yourself in whatever way you wish, including dying your hair with distinctive colors.
However, you should also respect your employer’s appearance guidelines, as long as they don’t infringe on your rights. This way, you can still express your individuality while striking a balance and avoiding unnecessary conflict.
For example, if your employer prohibits bright red hair, perhaps you could dye yours a muted maroon. Or, if you’re considering going platinum blonde, maybe go less metallic with a more traditional blonde.
In addition to color, you can also focus on other important aspects like hair grooming and styling. And if you’re self-conscious about being bald or on the way there, you can try hair restoration products or consider making a change to the types of foods you eat.