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‘It’s virtually impossible to reach the top of City firms without straight hair’

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Is black hair and professionalism an oxymoron? An aspiring lawyer looks at the research

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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.

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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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87 Comments

Anonymous

Please don’t make stupid and offensive comments.

If you do not have the hair type, nor have experienced what is being said, then you have no right to comment, attack or ridicule the matter.

(79)(93)

s.32 Salmon Act 1986

I fully agree with the request that nobody should make stupid or offensive comments.

However, the suggestion that nobody can comment on this article unless they have a certain hair type is a stupid comment, and is therefore in violation of your original proposal.

Hair can wait. You need to straighten out your ideas.

(147)(5)

Anonymous

haha thanks for the comment, I made an error. It should have been : no right to comment attacking or ridiculing the matter, not no right to comment.

(18)(16)

#freespeech

Who put you in charge?

Sod off back to your safe space, snowflake!

(14)(11)

Stupidity

Yes and we should also prevent doctors who have not yet personally recovered from cancer treat cancer patients right?

(0)(0)

Anonymous

This post has been removed because it breached Legal Cheek’s comments policy.

(2)(10)

Anonymous

GEIL

(2)(9)

Anonymous

How do you think I feel, I’m completely bald.

(51)(8)

Commercial Barrister

Thank you – what a thoughtful and well-written article. I agree that there is a huge amount of racist baggage in the British upper middle class and the “professions” related to black hair. The onus is on everyone in the professions, and especially white people who benefit most from the unconscious biases which still persist, to try to recognise any prejudices (even unintended prejudices) we might have and make a conscious effort to overcome them. Black professionals must not be judged on whether they decide to wear a weave or wear their hair relaxed, curly or braided.

(55)(37)

Solicitor Hopeful

Thank you, appreciate it x

(0)(1)

Anonymous

You’ve never worked as a solicitor. Please stop using anecdotal accounts to make lazy assumptions on a sector.

(46)(14)

Anonymous

what if you’re bald?

(6)(5)

loljk m8

I ensure my body remains totally hairless and greased with coconut oil. I have reached a heightened state of aerodynamics. By adopting this approach my working efficiency has increased by at least 17%.

(38)(8)

Anonymous

I’m an associate. At the two firms I have worked at there are big pushes for diversity and inclusion. That also comes from our clients who are doing more and more on diversity and want the same for their lawyers.

This article isn’t about law firms, it is about how black women have different hair to white and Asian women and need a weave for long hair. Black women don’t grow long hair. Most black women choose a weave because they think it looks better and they like it. It just isn’t an issue in the workplace for that reason. If black women choose not to have a weave, companies like mine would not judge, unconsciously or otherwise.

(29)(37)

Anonymous

Without making assumptions would you be willing to confirm which company you work for.

(2)(2)

Anonymous

Black women can and do grow long hair – many examples can be found on YouTube.

Wearing weaves, relaxed hair, extensions, natural hair and even headscarves in professional roles has not seemed to impact me.
(I now have my hair in sisterlocks – small sized locks – a low maintenance natural hair style that promotes long hair growth, and which has been adopted by many professional black women).

I fully understand how some black women may feel like they have to conform in order to succeed, but I also think progress has a great deal to do with confidence and high quality work.

You can’t force people to validate your appearance, but you can become so brilliant that when they think of you, the last thing on their mind is your hair.

(23)(2)

Anonymous

Most don’t and if they do it is too weak as it is curly. Mixed women grow long hair. It is a trite point to point to make.

(3)(8)

Anonymous

Well meaning or not, you are one of the problems black people regularly have to deal with. Afro hair actually grows long. There is something called shrinkage which makes the hair look shorter than it actually is. As you do not know this simple fact, I wonder how you purport to understand the relationship black women have with hair or how you can make assumptions about how black women in general feel about their hair because some women choose to wear straight weaves. I wonder if you carried out a survey and black women told you that they think straight hair is better. Oh and please do not respond saying “…but my one black friend told me…” because this is the way this type of conversation usually goes. Finally, to all the black women that post these silly articles on Legal Cheek, please stop. You do not need anybody’s validation or approval. This is becoming ridiculous!

(13)(2)

Anonymous

I live with a black girl. She has said this to me word for word many times. I asked her about it again before commenting on whatsapp. I think that is reasonable. If you don’t share that characteristic you listen to people who do. And then get shouted down by an internet troll. Which sounds about right.

(3)(5)

Anonymous

Haha! Why am I not surprised. I knew the “I can speak for black people because I know a black person” comment was coming. Usually very easy to see from a mile away. Anyway, I’ve said my piece.

(18)(4)

Anonymous

You’ve basically been pretty rude and banal.

(5)(6)

Anonymous

1. black women can and do grow long hair.

2. there is a thing called ‘shrinkage’.

3. curly hair is not necessarily weak.

4. neither you nor your black flatmate know why most black women do anything (we are not a homogeneous group and your flatmate cannot speak for me).

5. read a book called ‘why I no longer talk to black people about race.’ You might learn something about the many many ways in which your comments are wrong, insulting and completely unnecessary.

(6)(2)

Mel

This is not true and actually a myth . The problem is weave actually damages our hair. I have cousins who have hair to their ankles and they are beautiful dark skin black women. If you go on Instagram, you will see a host of black women with long natural hair .

However, I do not necessarily think there is a bias. I wear a weave. Nevertheless, I think unless you are willing to fork out about 500+ for a descent weave. You are actually better off wearing your own hair.

(2)(1)

Anonymous

Thanks for overlooking black men

(11)(3)

Anonymous

As if they don’t have the same hair, ye

(2)(2)

R Kelly

And thanks for overlooking me! #metoo

(9)(4)

Mel

As usual the peripheral black male bullies trying to get air time kmt.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

“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.”

Telling people they ‘should’ be doing x or y in order not to upset a prejudicial applecart might be viewed as a bit controversial…

(10)(1)

Anonymous

Very well written!

(7)(4)

Solicitor Hopeful

Thank you x

(0)(0)

Anonymous

I like that type of hair. I think it looks great if anybody says otherwise I will come down on them like the HAMMER OF THOR. The thunder of my vengeance will echo through this comment section like the gust of a THOUSAND WINDS.

(8)(1)

Anonymous

I will RUIN you

(1)(1)

Anonymous

It isn’t just women with hair like that. Look up Leroy Sane. I think it is stylish.

(4)(2)

Afro-seeker

A quick sample of websites of the leading law firms in Nigeria and Ghana (it’s been a slow morning…) yields no evidence that I can see of even a single afro, on a woman or a man:
http://www.banwo-ighodalo.com/people/our-lawyers
https://www.templars-law.com/our-people/
http://www.uubo.org/uubo/ourpeople.asp?class=partners
https://www.belonline.org/index.php/people

I am not entirely sure what to conclude from that, but it seems somewhat implausible that those firms (or wider societies) have pressured their lawyers (or job applicants) to cut or straighten their hair in order to conform to white notions of what is “professional”. Maybe there is, instead, a wider social convention across many cultures that having “big hair”, whatever ethnicity you are, is an unwelcome distraction in a legal context?

(26)(5)

Anonymous

I’ve worked closely with lawyers from Banwo & Ighodalo on a large Nigerian arbitration, and can safely say they’d crush many of the ‘Hurray Henry’ types in firms across the City in both ability and legal knowledge.

Plus their names sound pretty cool.

(12)(2)

Anonymous

I saw quite a few women with natural hair in the first link.

(6)(0)

Afro-seeker

Whatever the styles are called, they all look professional to me. So what’s the problem?

(5)(0)

Anonymous

‘somewhat implausible’? Try again.

Perhaps we can conclude that colonialism was a real bitch and that, sadly, after more than 60 years of independence, many of us in Ghana still aspire to western standards of beauty. Relaxed hair and wigs are the norm here. Skin bleaching is not uncommon either – should we conclude that this means dark skin is also an ‘unwelcome distraction’?

(2)(0)

Anonymous

What a lot of bollocks…

(6)(5)

Anonymous

Load* correcting my original comment

(0)(1)

Anonymous

how so?

(0)(0)

Anonymous

go natural, you do you girl.

(3)(0)

Anonymous

Someone just needs to write a definitive guide on style for BAME city solicitors like that ex BLP lawyer.

(1)(2)

BAME!

🎼 I wanna live for-ever!🎶

(5)(1)

Anonymous

Don’t blame the profession.

Blame the clients for not taking someone with dreads seriously!

(2)(2)

Anonymous

Unless this is simply what senior lawyers think clients will care about, rather than what clients will actually care about.

That is, to the extent this is really a thing at all – I’m not wholly convinced it is.

(0)(1)

Anonymous

Thanks for overlooking us Sukhoi fighter jet planes. It’s not easy being discriminated against in the office for having wings and being too big to fit in the office

(16)(8)

Anonymous

Unfunny. Try again.

(5)(16)

Anonymous

I think the writer really needs to look at how women have achieved despite having the type of hair she claims to be a hindrance. When I was working in a certain sector, Eversheds had a wonderful female solicitor, who is doing incredibly well and she hasn’t let her hair hold her back. I agree there are some hurdles we all go through, for one reason or another, but if you let it defeat you, then you’ve lost. However, if you push through, you’ll get there and it will make you an incredibly resilient and successful person, both professionally and personally.

(5)(2)

Anonymous

One ‘wonderful female solicitor’ is proof that natural hair is not a hindrance? And if one does face hurdles because of their natural hair (i.e. if they are a victim of racism) it’s fine because they will become more resilient? umm….

(3)(1)

Solicitor Hopeful

I agree wholeheartedly x

(0)(0)

Barry

Law firms do not discriminate against people for having afro hair. Stop playing the victim and get on with your life. Pathetic.

(5)(16)

Anonymous

Your man Barry there, who has come across prejudice so many times in his life and fought through it.

(16)(3)

Anonymous

and you know this how?

(1)(0)

BAME

I’m gonna live forever…

(1)(1)

BAME!

You’re not the real me!

(2)(2)

Anonymous

I am a male heavy metal fan who spend most of my teenage years growing long hair and very much saw my hairstyle as part of my identity and what made me – well, me!

When it came to interviewing for TCs I realised that I would have to get a haircut to appear “professional” even if it had absolutely no influence on my ability to provide legal advice.

I feel your article completely overlooks other hairstyles that, in my view, would be considered cultural (albeit, sub-cultural). I have never come across a successful lawyer who has a mohican, dreadlocks, dyed hair, long hair (on a man), or dreadlocks (on a person of any colour).

I suppose if you did consider those other styles you might conclude that the whole “professional/unprofessional” line is completely arbitrary and not necessarily racism. But that doesn’t fit the narrative does it?

(10)(8)

Anonymous

Typical “all lives matter” inclusionary response to a very specific issue in the article. Your growing long hair was a choice. Being born with Afro curls is not. The feeling of repressing your natural born hair type to progress in your career (irrespective of length) is different to feeling the need to change a Mohican/long hair, styled by choice, to be professional. I agree that we should all be free to express ourselves as we choose but likening this issue to your own long hair is oversimplification of a more serious cultural issue

(14)(6)

Anonymous

Rubbish – the article claims that black women would face career hurdles if they “choose” to adopt a particular hair style (the natural one). There is nothing to suggest the black woman is not hired because of her skin colour (which is obviously not a choice).

Drawing the parallel that if a man where to “choose” to adopt a particular hair style (the long natural one) actually suggests that “no lives matter” (i.e. nobody is special). I am simply not agreeing that isolating a single hair style and saying “non-acceptance of this is indicative of racism”.

(3)(7)

Anonymous

Ask yourself why you felt it necessary to make an article on black women about you, a white man. Then go read ‘why I no longer talk to white people about race’.

(7)(3)

Anonymous

If you can’t see that the very title of this book is the essence of an ad hominem argument then it is genuinely frightening that you might be a practising lawyer.

(3)(4)

Anonymous

Your response once again reinforces my view that you could benefit from reading the book, or at least the blog post that resulted in the book. Google it.

(2)(2)

Anonymous

As a mixed race female with long hair I found this article to ring absolutely true. I used to have very curly hair but after spending the last decade straightening it have destroyed those beautiful curls, and for what? To feel like I belong in this profession that I worked so hard to be a part of.

Unfortunately, the bias (subconscious or otherwise) within the legal and other professions, can leave people feeling the need to appear ‘less black’ in order to fit in and progress.

I am glad to see this article shed light on what is a serious issue. Fortunately times are moving forward just slowly…

(11)(0)

Solicitor Hopeful

Annoymous 5.26

Thanks for commenting x

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Well, that’s me screwed with my luxurious mane of wavy blonde hair.

I may not get to the top but at least I have good hair.

(5)(6)

Anonymous

um, how so? And congrats on centering yourself in a discussion on black women. May I recommend a book called ‘why I no longer talk to white people about race’

(5)(4)

Anonymous

Because the author said curly hair is a no no. My volumising conditioner is already in the bin.

(5)(3)

Anonymous

The article is specifically (and explicitly) about black women’s natural hair. Unless your curls are type 3a-4c (and you are a black women), this isn’t about you! Seriously, read the book.

(4)(4)

Anonymous

Good for you!

(0)(0)

Anonymous

It’s *too not to 😩

(0)(0)

Anonymous

No one can have their natural hair. It simply does not look professional. I would love to be able to come out of the shower, dry my hair, brush it quickly and be ready to go but sadly…that is not the world we live in.

Men may need a shorter proper overall for their hair routine but women in general have to spend a significant amount of time to make their hair look a certain way.

It’s not fair at all on anyone but sadly, no client will take that person seriously. If anything, they would actively think that a person does not take pride in their appearance.

(10)(5)

Anonymous

clearly you don’t understand what ‘natural hair’ means. The term refers to natural texture/curl pattern of the hair. Those with natural hair (including myself) tend to put a lot of effort into keeping it healthy and styling it. We use oils, leave in conditioners, curling creams, edge control, pre-poos, no-poos. I could go on but I don’t want to give away all the secrets to our amazing natural hair.

(6)(4)

Anonymous

No poo infinitely preferable to pre poo. Just ask Alex.

(1)(0)

Trumpenkrieg

I wonder if somewhere, someone is splitting hairs over whether European hair is an obstacle to reaching the top of a law firm in Nairobi, or Accra, or Brazzaville, or Abuja…

(31)(7)

Anonymous

Probably not. Here in Ghana, the remnants of colonialism and white supremacy mean that, sadly, the western beauty standard prevails. Wigs and relaxer are the norm for many professional women. So, natural hair would probably be a bigger barrier to success than European hair.

(8)(1)

Anonymous

I’m white but have very thick curly hair. I always straighten it and wouldn’t dream of going to an interview with it natural. I would be concerned people thought I wasn’t making an effort and this could be a reflection of my work. Seeing this article makes me disappointed that I feel like that.

(4)(1)

Anonymous

This is why the bar traditionally used wigs.

(3)(2)

Whizz Kid

People have commented you should be allowed to ‘be yourself’. Well, you could always try that approach, but don’t kick yourself when you don’t get the job and someone who ‘conformed’ did.

(2)(2)

Anonymous

Legal profession is all about conformity.

I wish I could wear my bright red suit to court and truly be myself but alas….

(4)(3)

Anonymous

And what exactly does ‘conformity’ mean in this context? What should we be conforming to? If it means that black people need to adopt white features (including hair), then the profession has a serious problem.

(3)(0)

Anonymous

The profession? Or society as a whole?

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Hilarious thread lol

(0)(1)

Solicitor Hopeful

I prefer the word thought provoking & stimulating x

(0)(0)

Logical Lawyer

This is a great article – it reminds me of one of my favourite songs (India Arie – I Am Not My Hair): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_5jIt0f5Z4

As the song lyrics artfully elicit, a hair type (in the same way as your skin colour), has no bearing on the person within. So the question must go back to the law firms – what really is the issue in terms of firm representation, if a lawyer has Afro-Caribbean (natural) hair? I just don’t see what the problem is – unless the firm is conforming to its own “expectations” or “standards”, but that prejudices how an individual wants to present themselves and their own identity. Bear in mind, this is an article about “natural” hair, not mohawks, fades etc etc.

NOTE: This is being said as an in-house lawyer ‘client’, and not someone of African / Afro-Caribbean descent – other people can certainly understand / appreciate what the issue is here!

(6)(0)

Anonymous

This post has been removed because it breached Legal Cheek’s comments policy.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

This post has been removed because it breached Legal Cheek’s comments policy.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

This post has been removed because it breached Legal Cheek’s comments policy.

(0)(0)

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