Colourism: How skin-tone bias affects racial equality at work

Racial equality

Racial wage gap ... the darker the shade of your skin, the less you earn, according to studies. Image: Unsplash/Clay Banks

Adwoa Bagalini
People and Culture Project Manager, World Economic Forum
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Systemic Racism

  • Colourism is a form of discrimination based on skin tone, perpetuated by the global beauty industry, where sales of skin-lightening products are projected to reach $8.9 billion by 2024.
  • Studies have shown the existence of a wage gap linked to skin colour, which widens as the shade of the worker darkens.
  • Companies are urged to be aware of ‘beauty bias’ - and to address it through unconscious-bias training, among other methods.

Racial discrimination at work has been under much scrutiny from academics and journalists, but less considered is the subject of skin-tone bias, or colourism.

Unlike racial bias, which is usually perpetrated by individuals of one race against those of another, colourism is also frequently observed among members of the same ethnic or racial group.

Among the many dimensions of bias that are being tested by Project Implicit, a long-term research project based at Harvard University, is something called skin-tone bias, which, quite separately from racial bias “often reveals an automatic preference for light-skin relative to dark-skin”.

Have you read?

Such preferences are conditioned into us quite early on in life, as a 2010 study by CNN showed, in which children of all races pointed to fair-skinned cartoon characters when asked to identify those who were “pretty” or “smart”, and attributed negative characteristics to cartoon characters with darker skin tones.

Colourism and beauty

In a Tedx Stanford talk she gave in 2016 entitled “Confessions of a D Girl: Colorism and Global Standards of Beauty”, Stanford Graduate Business School student Chika Okoro talks about colourism and its pervasiveness in the entertainment industry, using the example of a casting call for the 2015 movie Straight Outta Compton.

It went like this: in search of women to be extras in the film, the company classified prospective candidates from A to D: A girls included Black, white and mixed race; B girls were light-skinned; C girls had light to medium skin tones; and D girls were African American, poor and with medium-to-dark skin tone. After the posting was called out on social media, it was removed and Universal Pictures issued an apology.


Skin-tone bias is not just observed in the United States, however, but around the globe. Skin-lightening products sell briskly in many markets, and based on historical data the market research firm Zion reported last year that global sales are expected to reach $8.9 billion by 2024, up from $4 billion in 2017.

In the wake of the protests against systemic racism last month, global corporations have committed to no longer sell products that mention “skin whitening”, but the products will still be available under different names, using euphemisms like glowing, radiant, bright or clear, and coyly presented as anti-aging wellness products.

colorism racial bias racism
Research shows the impact on Hispanics in the US. Image: Pew Research Center

Global phenomenon

In many countries in the global South, where white people are a minority, colourism is still present as a vestige of colonialism, and people with lighter skin tones benefit from preferential treatment in education, employment and media representation.

This is observed in many African countries, where governments struggle to regulate the sale of dangerous skin-lightening products, in India where beauty-pageant organizers are criticized for selecting only contestants who meet Eurocentric beauty ideals, and in Brazil, where darker-skinned citizens face a dearth of opportunities to achieve upward social mobility.

While colourism is not often mentioned as influencing employment outcomes, various academic studies have demonstrated the connection.

A 2006 study showed that fair-skinned applicants receive better ratings than darker-skinned applicants in employment-related decisions. In 2009, a study demonstrated that skin-tone bias plays a role in the favourability of Black applicants for job openings, and may even be “more salient and regarded more highly than one’s educational background and prior work experience”.

Another study in 2018 extended to pay as well, finding that lighter-skinned young Black adults “attain a higher educational level, receive higher wages and enjoy better-quality jobs than their darker-skinned co-ethnics.”

Colourism at work

Drawing on data from the Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality and the National Survey of Black Americans, researchers were able to demonstrate that there is both an inter-racial and an intra-racial wage gap, which widens as the skin shade of the Black worker darkens.

The colourism wage gap is also present with legal immigrants to the United States, who, even after a four-year assimilation grace period, still experienced a substantial pay disparity that could not be explained by individual and job characteristics, ranging from a 16% lightest-to-darkest penalty up to a 25% difference.

As with colourism itself, the adverse outcomes on employment opportunities for individuals with darker skin tones may be observed outside of the US too, and studies have shown this inequity in India and in South Africa.

What employers can do

Companies can play a role in identifying and addressing discrimination based on skin tone at work by increased education and awareness. All employees, but especially people managers who are responsible for recruitment, salary and promotion-related decisions, should be aware of the prevalence of skin-tone bias.

Our society’s dominant aesthetic preference for light skin, and its subconscious effect on all of us, means that colourism at work is an outcome of “beauty bias”, in which physical attractiveness – by no means an objective measure – is a reliable indicator that a person might be interviewed for a job, hired, promoted and even paid generously regardless of actual ability.

This information is best delivered in the context of unconscious bias workshops, which, to be truly effective, need to empower participants with practical strategies to interrupt biases, and instil a sense of responsibility to make policy and procedural change at the institutional level.

Establishing objective criteria for recruitment processes, interviewing a diverse pool of candidates and using structured skills-based interview questions, will lead to hiring decisions that are less susceptible to prejudice.

Implementing an effective diversity and inclusion strategy which ensures that employees of all ethnicities and skin tones have equal access to a fair salary, high-value professional development opportunities, and promotions, will also contribute to mitigating skin-tone bias in the workplace.

Cultural shift

The good news is that these larger societal attitudes, while seemingly discouraging, are subject to change with time. As companies and individuals come to terms with systemic racism and carry out actions to make change, the odds are that this increased awareness will result in a reduction of bias over the long term.

In the US, data from more than 4 million tests completed between 2004 and 2016 showed that participants’ self-reported attitudes regarding groups defined by a number of identity dimensions shifted toward neutrality, and implicit bias also decreased, particularly toward race, skin tone and sexuality.

Implicit bias towards gay and lesbian individuals decreased rapidly, by 33%, while implicit bias towards dark-skinned individuals had decreased by a smaller number, at 15%.

Significant social events, including elections, new social policies, broad cultural trends, and social justice movements like Black Lives Matter all play a role in changing both explicit behaviours and implicit attitudes.

The data on societal-level racial attitudes, collected from 2009 to 2016 from over a million participants showed that overall implicit attitudes became less biased after the Black Lives Matter protests from July 2013 to June 2016.

While it is still early to predict what effect the 2020 BLM protests will have, if the 2013-2016 study is any indication, we can expect to see less racial bias from future studies.

To ensure that this same decrease is also felt when it comes to colourism, we need to be aware of the existence of skin-tone bias and include this dimension in programmes to reduce racial inequality, ensuring that barriers to equal opportunity for darker-skinned minorities are also fairly addressed.

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