‘It’s virtually impossible to reach the top of City firms without straight hair’
Is black hair and professionalism an oxymoron? An aspiring lawyer looks at the research
Black British women’s natural hair, often kinky and curly, has historically been described as ugly and unprofessional. During the 1880s, such hair was associated with characteristics of laziness, dirt and even dishonesty, and thus deemed inferior. Because of such a negative stigma, black females chemically relaxed their hair to make it straight.
Despite the adverse effects on their health, many black women went to such lengths because they knew those with straightened hair were deemed more reliable than those with natural hair. Although this happened hundreds of years ago, the aspiration to conform to European beauty is something that persists today and is often perpetuated by the media and traditional institutions.
My interest in this topic was sparked while reading one of Legal Cheek‘s Career Conundrums, where an anonymous training contract hunter discusses corporate law firms’ unspoken hairstyle policy. Many flocked to the comments section to encourage the law grad to get a weave because “appearance matters to clients, clients matter to the firm, therefore, your appearance matters to the firm”.
The struggle to portray a ‘professional’ image is not faced only by black women. It is a struggle that all women confront. However, it is evident that black female lawyers face unique challenges around appearance, especially when it comes to hair. For aspiring lawyers, most corporate law firms require their trainee solicitors to adhere to a strict appearance code. For example, most City firms require a smart attire/appearance that may prohibit protective hairstyles such as braids or dreadlocks.
Naturally, the way you present yourself at work can affect the image you convey to partners. It can influence work allocation and future promotions. This may make it difficult for women of colour to reach the top of the corporate ladder with their so-called ‘ethnic hairstyles’.
With the perception that straight hair equals professionalism, it seems black job seekers should perhaps think twice before wearing their hair natural for an interview. In February, the Perception Institute released research that suggested black women with natural hair experience bias in the workplace.
And first-hand accounts seem to support this. Dana Harrell — an education and sociology major at Claflin University — was told during an internship interview that if she wanted to move forward, she would have to straighten her hair. This is despite, on a panel event at City Law School, senior solicitor Angela Jackman stating hair should be a personal choice not a reflection of one’s skills or personality. Therefore, if one’s hair doesn’t prevent one from doing their job properly then why is it such a big deal in the workplace?
Understandably, most employers have adopted dress codes, in part, to keep the working environment free from distraction. Employers have the right to impose dress codes, however, they must be careful not to enforce policies based on the grounds of race or nationality. An employer who prohibits afro hairstyles in the workplace risks the serious allegation that they are discriminating against black employees.
The ‘Natural Hair Movement’ which began a few years ago (and has taken the internet by the storm) has convinced some that the disdain for natural hair is merely a result of societal conditioning. This can effectively be changed with exposure to positive visual representation via mainstream social media. For black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) females just breaking into the legal profession, their initial reaction, if faced with this dilemma, would be to conform and fit in with their colleagues. However, over time, this obedience may falter.
To many afro-Caribbeans, hair is a huge part of their identity, and by conforming they would be watering down their identity for career advancement. Many, if not all, share the following view: the way a woman chooses to wear her hair should be a matter entirely of her choice, whether it is natural, weaved or otherwise, given it doesn’t affect the quality of her work. Many are aware that self-acceptance and happiness walk hand in hand, and believe you cannot have one without the other.
Solicitor Hopeful is an LLB student and is seeking a training contract.
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