• Wearing natural hairstyles is one factor shown by academic research to affect the job prospects of Black women.

• Corporate environments still largely conform to standards of personal appearance based on white beauty norms.

• Such prejudices, backed by legislation, are beginning to shift.

February is Black History Month in the US and Canada, and for many companies it is time to evaluate where they stand on their commitments to advancing racial justice in the workplace, especially as it pertains to attracting and retaining Black professionals. The recruitment process and talent pipeline are a natural first step on the roadmap to tackling racial inequality, and understandably so.

The paltry representation of Black and other underrepresented talent in most companies, especially at higher levels, illustrate that few are hired in the first place, making the experience of being “the only” in teams and meetings a frequently daunting one that also magnifies the impact of daily microaggressions.

Little acknowledged is the fact that during the hiring process, first impressions and quick judgements – or cognitive bias – often have an outsized influence on perceptions of a candidate’s competency and aptitude. For Black women, one small but important factor can unfortunately make the difference in whether they are hired or not: wearing natural hairstyles.

A study published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal last year confirmed a truth many Black women long suspected and grapple with even today: That in job recruitment, natural hairstyles put them at a disadvantage for getting interviewed and subsequently hired.

The authors of the study, Christy Zhou Khoval and Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, found that “Black women with natural hairstyles were perceived to be less professional, less competent, and less likely to be recommended for a job interview than Black women with straightened hairstyles and white women with either curly or straight hairstyles.”

These results were replicated in controlled experiments, and the researchers found that the strongest correlation between natural hairstyles and negative evaluations during the hiring process occurred in industries with “strong dress norms”, such as financial services and management consulting.

No matter how a Black woman wears her hair – whether straightened, natural, braided or lengthened with extensions – she is sure to have carefully contemplated what that means in a professional context, and how her self-presentation affects her chances of being hired, receiving recognition for her work or being promoted.

This is because standards of professionalism in many corporate settings have been fashioned around certain unspoken norms that do not include women and people of colour. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Tsedale Melaku describes a “you-don’t-look-like” mentality that is pervasive in corporate America, where “norms of success, ability, and competence are tied to looking a certain way – usually white and male”.

Other implied rules of success include having “tailored suits, a certain range of coiffed hair styles, and other accoutrements or signals of success”. The hairstyles deemed acceptable in most corporate settings do not extend to the naturally curly hair most Black women possess, a bias that has been constructed over decades. Koval and Rosette explain that “dating back to slavery, Black women who had tightly coiled hair were assigned to more gruelling labour”, and in contemporary society, “Black women with natural hairstyles are perceived to be more dominant and less attractive than Black women with straightened hairstyles by both Black and White evaluators.”

Perceptions of professionalism are particularly important in the hiring process, and recruiters and hiring managers are more likely to favour candidates who they feel are appropriately dressed and groomed, and “look the part”. Such judgements are inherently rife with bias and put Black women at a disadvantage, especially when the accepted standard for “professional hairstyle” often means straightened hair; a look that can be difficult, time-consuming and expensive to achieve and maintain, not to mention potentially harmful to their health and well-being.

The effects of this equivalence of straight hair with professional hair are all too real in the lived experiences of Black women at work, with testimonies from women who have been humiliated for having hair that was not deemed to be in line with a “clean professional look”, or sent home because of a company policy dictating that women “must wear their hair down”, although for many Black women with natural hairstyles this is unachievable.

The past couple of decades have seen a natural hair movement, with more Black women choosing to wear their hair naturally for cultural and aesthetic reasons, and opting not to chemically straighten their hair for health reasons as well. For companies, this means that they will also be more likely to encounter candidates with natural hairstyles, and without taking steps to adequately educate and update recruiters and hiring managers on the bias inherent in “professional appearance” standards, they may lose out on gaining top talent for their teams.

As natural hairstyles become more commonplace at work, so does subtle marginalization linked to appearance, with a new report from the UK finding that 93% of Black people have faced microaggressions related to their hair. Before the pandemic sent many office workers home, for Black women the distress associated with fending off colleagues who asked to touch their hair – and others doing so without permission – was a regular experience at work.

While slow, there has been encouraging progress in the past few years, with increased awareness of hair discrimination at work and new legislative protections and updated corporate guidelines that enable Black women to bring their whole selves – including natural hairstyles – to work. Some of these include:

• In 2019, the CROWN Act was passed into law in California, prohibiting “discrimination based on a person’s hair texture or hairstyle if that style or texture is commonly associated with a particular race or national origin”. Since then, six additional states including New York, New Jersey and Maryland have passed the legislation, and 23 more have introduced it for consideration.

• United Parcel Service (UPS) made headlines in November 2020 for easing corporate guidelines on employee appearance, including lifting a ban on facial hair and allowing natural Black hairstyles like Afros and braids in an effort to celebrate diversity.

• Unilever, one of the biggest employers in the UK, has adopted the Halo Code, a newly formed initiative that aims to end discrimination against children and adults who have afro-textured hair, both at school and in the workplace.

• In 2017, and again in 2021, the US Army updated its grooming standards to be more welcoming towards service members with afro-textured hair, acknowledging that “inclusive grooming standards help to foster and retain the best talent”.

As companies reflect on how to support Black people at work during the month of February, inclusive hiring practices – and more scrutiny of how assessments on professional appearance are made, and what subconsciously negative judgments may be made about Black women candidates based on their natural hairstyles – may be a good place to start.