Stories about discriminatory practices against Black people with natural hairstyles (e.g. afros, twists, dreadlocks, braids and cornrows) abound. At school, having natural hair has led to detention, punishment and even exclusions, and previous research has also found serious stigma around natural hair when it comes to desirability and professionalism.
A new study in Social Psychological and Personality Science backs this up, finding that such biases can tangibly affect Black women’s chances with potential employers. Christy Zhou Koval at Michigan State University and Ashleigh Shelby Rosette at Duke University found that Black women with natural hairstyles were seen as less competent and less professional than White female applicants or Black applicants with straightened hair — and that they were less likely to get job interviews, too.
In the first study, 480 participants imagined themselves as a recruiter, tasked with evaluating job applicants based on their Facebook profile. The applicants themselves had a wide range of different hairstyles, but fell into one of four groups: White women with curly or straight hair, and Black women with natural or straightened hair. Participants rated each applicant on professionalism and competence, and indicated how likely they would be to select the applicant for an interview.
As expected, Black women with natural hairstyles were rated as less professional and less competent than Black women with straightened hair and White women with both curly and straight hair (though curly-haired White women were ranked as less professional than their straight-haired counterparts). Black women with natural hair were also the group least likely to be recommended for interview.
A second study replicated this process — except this time, participants saw multiple pictures of the same women with different hairstyles. The effect held: Black women were seen as less professional, less competent and less likely to be invited to interview when they were depicted with natural hair.
A further study looked at the role of industry in perception of natural hair. This time, participants were told they were recruiting either for the consulting industry (traditionally more conservative) or the advertising industry (more laidback). In the consulting condition, Black women with natural hair were again considered less professional and less competent and again received fewer recommendations for interview than Black women with straightened hair. In advertising, however, there was no difference in either professionalism or interview recommendations. A further study replicated these findings.
The results highlight the need for an intersectional approach to understanding workplace discrimination. It’s obviously true that women often experience extensive biases at work because of their gender — but these biases can be compounded or experienced in completely different ways by women of colour. The discrimination outlined in this study is certainly not the only kind experienced by Black women — and, as the team notes, other women of colour experience stigma around their appearance too. Headscarves, to use just one example, may also affect hiring practices.
Future research could look at more natural scenarios — although some employers do look at social media profiles while hiring, examining biases during in-person interviews could provide further insights.
The findings from the second part of the study suggest that differing norms between sectors may play a key part in perpetuating inequality. It follows that addressing such systemic racism is an important part in addressing these sorts of biases. Public policies, as seen in some parts of the US, may also help to protect Black women from employment discrimination: in four US states, for example, it’s now illegal to discriminate based on someone’s hairstyle.
It’s also important to note that although this study was conducted in an American context, the problem exists across the world — as Irish writer Emma Dabiri points out in her petition to amend the UK Equality Act to include hair discrimination. Research looking at exactly how these biases operate in other countries is key to understanding and tackling such practices.