Academic journal article Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy

The Hair Dilemma: Conform to Mainstream Expectations or Emphasize Racial Identity

Academic journal article Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy

The Hair Dilemma: Conform to Mainstream Expectations or Emphasize Racial Identity

Article excerpt


Social scientists have long chronicled the impact of an individual's appearance on numerous outcomes including others' judgments of the individual's competence, amicability, intelligence, and trustworthiness. (1) As these types of judgments affect hiring decisions, promotions, performance appraisals, and other critical work outcomes, they can have a particularly profound impact on individuals in the workplace. (2) Accordingly, many people today recognize the importance of projecting a professional image at work and the role that their demeanor, clothing, and grooming play in crafting that image successfully. However, we also know from social science research that women and minorities suffer a disadvantage in crafting this professional image due to negative stereotypes, lower expectations, and workplace norms that run counter to their cultural values and that reward white male standards of behavior and appearance. (3)

Women in general and minority women in particular, encounter many obstacles to achieving their preferred professional image. Gender alone presents a double-bind for women who are making decisions about their grooming and appearance in the workplace. On one hand, the most valued characteristics in corporate settings--competitiveness, ambition, aggressiveness, and competence are typically associated with men. (4) As a result, women may not want to groom themselves in a manner that would highlight their femininity or attractiveness. (5) On the other hand, conventionally attractive women fare better professionally than less attractive women, as attractive women tend to make more money and receive more job offers and promotions. (6)

For minority women, the decision of how to groom themselves at work has an added dimension. In addition to managing the paradox of femininity and attractiveness, minority women must also negotiate the presentation of their racial identities. Minority women often feel they must compensate for both their gender and race in attempting to present a professional image that will render them credible to their co-workers. (7) Crafting a professional image entails managing perceptions through a variety of behaviors and grooming decisions. One of the most central decisions in managing perceptions involves how to style one's hair. (8) For example, Professor Rose Weitz chronicled interviews with an Asian woman who permed (curled) her hair often because she felt that she looked "too Asian" with her naturally straight hair. (9) Similarly, a Chicana woman interviewed by Weitz commented that long hair rendered a less professional appearance that highlighted her racial features. (10) In each of these examples, these minority women chose to wear their hair in a manner that downplayed their racial or ethnic identities.

Recent lawsuits document the complexities associated with grooming decisions for Black women in professional settings. In particular, several cases involving Black women show that hairstyle choices may have serious repercussions. In McManus v. MCI Communications Corp., McManus, a Black woman, argued that she was fired for wearing her hair in braids and dreadlocks and dressing in African clothing. (11) The plaintiff in Hollins v. Atlantis Co., who came to work with her hair in "finger waves" (an elaborate cropped hairstyle worn by Black women), claimed that her employer's policy prohibiting "eye catching" hairstyles was discriminatory. (12) Likewise, in Rogers v. American Airlines, Inc., a Black woman was fired for wearing her hair in braids. (13) As these cases demonstrate, "ethnic" hair styles are sometimes not welcome in the corporate world.

However, not all Black women face such explicit discrimination against their hairstyle choices. Most employers are savvy enough to avoid overtly discriminatory policies that would invite legal challenges. Instead, many obstacles arise when employers manifest subtle negative biases that are frequently associated with stereotypes about Black women. …

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