Choosing Natural Hair Styles Still a Career Concern for Black Women

Black women are embracing natural hair like never before, but acceptance by corporate America is still a significant concern for those climbing the ladder.

By Anita C. Ricketts
Vice President, Consulting

Choosing Natural Hair Styles Still a Career Concern for Black WomenWhen I was an undergraduate at Stanford University and decided to “go natural” with my hair, it was more of a lifestyle and financial choice. But in returning to my corporate internship the following summer, I quickly realized it was also a career issue when my (white, male) supervisor told me my hair was “too short and militant” for the company culture. He meant well, knew that I hoped to work for the company after graduation and sincerely wanted to help me succeed in my career. He really was a great guy and he did help me, in truth. I kept my hair natural and decided that maybe that company wasn’t the right place for me after all. I took a position with a competitor company after graduation.

As a de facto member of “Black Twitter,” I have seen firsthand that the discussion about career issues related to “going natural” still rages on. One of the first questions, beyond how to care for natural Black hair, is how will it impact my career? Will my employer accept the change? Will I be able to get a job? Will this change prevent me from getting promotions? Earlier this year, a Huffington Post article on this topic drew many comments and debate. These are real questions that are posed by Black women who are considering the “transition” to natural hair.

For some, wearing our hair natural is an affirmation and presentation of our authentic selves. To have to question whether or not doing so will slow or halt hard-won career progress is really about questioning the inclusiveness of our work environments. Even more fundamentally, it is really questioning the success of our corporate diversity-management programs. So ask yourselves: Would a Black woman feel comfortable wearing her neatly styled and groomed natural hair at my company? Would she get opportunities that could lead to promotions as easily? Would she be mentored as well in a cross-cultural mentoring relationship? Would she be able to secure sponsors as effectively? If the answers to these questions are “I don’t know” or, even more problematic, “probably not” … well, there is more work to be done.

I am at a point in my 20-plus-year career when I can honestly say to a potential employer: “If you can’t handle my hair, then maybe I don’t need to work here.” Yes, acceptance of my hair is one of several litmus tests for whether or not I will choose your company over another. If the natural-hair-wearing women on “Black Twitter” are any indication, there are more like me coming. If you don’t believe me, just Ask the White Guy.

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  • Hello. I’m a small business owner who is also a ‘natural hair’ wearer. I commend you on your decision and conviction to remain all natural. I take no offense to those who wish to use chemicals in their hair either. That’s what versatility is about. If others have issues with your hair, then you’re better off not being around them anyway. It’s their loss. Again, accolades to you, and much success.

    • Yes I would have to commend you for that. I have experienced the same thing for a job interview I had recently. I was about to straighten my hair for the interview but the voice inside me said, ” If this company cant accept me for my hair when everything is clean, neat, and very professional then it wasnt meant for me. I GOT THE JOB!!!! Stay true to yourself is the KEY!!!

    • I straightened my hair for a job interview and it was the worst interview I’ve ever had.

      The woman was rude and I probably should have walked out, I wonder from time to time if she would have had the balls to behave like that if i kept my hair natural.

      I will never straighten my hair for an interview ever again!!!

  • As a woman who has been natural for a little over a year now and has been in and out of the current job market…it is a constant question about whether or not I should straighten my hair for interviews. I recently had a phone interview and was happy that I didn’t have to spend the money to have my hair straightened! (I’m not hair savvy so my straightening job would have been less than stellar). It’s unfortunate that we (naturals) have to be constantly aware of our presentation when really it has nothing to do with our abilities as workers. I can honestly say that when I wear my hair straight, I get farrrrr more compliments from my white counterparts. I even had one person tell me I should “wear my hair like that more often.” For now, I will wear my hair straight for the interview…and then revert back to it’s natural state after I sign on the dotted line….

  • Why is this even a concern to African-American women? Why do we keep giving racists so much power? No one. Let me repeat. NO ONE has the right to tell you that you have to look like anything other than the God-given DNA with which you were born. Any white supervisor or whatever telling you otherwise has Issues THEY need to work out. This is NOT our problem. That is the epitome of white privilege, telling someone that you must change your identity so they can feel more comfortable in your presence, or for then to not be reminded of your true Africanness. This would be equal to African-American managers telling a white person they must change their hair texture to kinky and their blue eyes to brown so they can feel comfortable. Really? White corporate America needs to stop trying to strip people of their identities and start going within themselves and stripping away the racism that lurks underneath. The hair I have on my head is what God gave me. It is beautiful. It is who I am. NO job is worth stripping away your identity for a dominant culture that feels entitled to tell people different from them to do so while they stay who they are – inside and out- because that is what is considered superior to you. Trust me, any company that won’t accept you is not a place you want to be and will leave you miserable and probably discriminate against you in the long run. Let it go, black people. Stop giving power to idiots who deserve none of your concern.

    • Totally agree with Tanya. Totally! We must not allow racist views to continue to permeate and dictate who we are as African-American women. I work in a corporate environment and wear a natural hair style. Whomever has a problem with that needs to work on resolving that problem within themselves. It is not, nor will ever be, my problem to resolve. Because, I am truly a free and proud Black Woman.

    • Tanya, you are on point. I always tell people that if you have a problem with what God made, then you should go have a conversation with him and tell him you don’t like what he made and hear his comment to you. And then I’d say, that’s between him and you, because in reality, I don’t care what you think.

    • You said it…and oh, so eloquently!
      This natural hair situation is simply a repeat of what i and the rest of the Black Baby-Boomer generation went through a generation ago….40 long years ago. We had the same dilemma in the workplace. How sad that things have remained so ignorantly the same. White America, in large degree finds it so difficult to be reminded of THEIR slavemaster past. Just looking at us being our trueselves intimidates the hell out of them. I guess its hard living with a guilty conscious. Seeing us accepting ourselves means we no longer care about their acceptance of us. I guess that’s scary for them, huh? But how long will they live in denial that they did what they did. Maybe a little confession and apology is in order…and long overdue!

    • Wow, Tanya’s words are my sentiments exactly! And I have said as such on similar boards on this site. Couldn’t have said it any differently! We women of African descent need to stop giving power to people who do not care for us, respect us, or even see us as equal human beings having equal value to them. I wear my hair in its natural kinky, curly, coily state and it is beautiful to me and that is enough. I don’t put heat on my hair because I feel it damages my very fine strands. I get comments on my job too, particularly the rare times when I wear my hair pushed up in a bun. That seems to be more aesthetically pleasing to others in my 99% white job place. The other day a white male who infrequently speaks to me or acknowledges me told me “I think your hair looks nice” and then under his breath he added “Today”. I went in the bathroom, took out my hair band and shook my hair back into the full, curly/coily/kinky fro I typically wear it in and kept it moving. If others feel threatened by my feeling comfortable in my skin and owning who I am that’s THEIR problem, not mine.

  • I work at a large, global financal institution. In 2011, I was very ill and the medication prescriped to me broke off my hair to the poin that I had to buzz it down. In essence, go natural. This was the second time in my life I went natural. Upon doing so it was well received at my place of employment. However, I didn’t really care if they liked it or not. The quality of my work is the same and my hairstyle does not affect that. I did get a couple of double takes from some of the caucasian folks (male & female). None of them said anyting to me. all the positive comments came from my female workers. The men just know better than to comment on the hair of any woman at the workplace (not matter what color they are). I would also have to say that my company is very good at putting diversity at the forefront. We still have to increase numbers, but there is diversity here. I love my TWA and I don’t think I will ever go back to relaxing it. Another note……I am no in upper management. I am an executive assistant working for a Senior Vice President. I don’t know how an upper level management woman with natural hair would fair here.

  • I think if more exposure in the media was given to women with natural hair this would become a non-issue. How many Black actresses wear a natural hairstyle? How many female entertainers wear locks or braids? How many female news anchors or reporters DON’T have straightened hair or wear a long, flowing weave? (And don’t get me started with the “Housewives”!) It starts with us. Make natural hair more visible; show the beauty and the versatility of natural hair on a regular basis, and watch what happens.

    • Michael J. Lowrey

      Tanya and Jatika, I hear what you are saying; but once again, why should Y’ALL have any responsibility whatsoever to educate the rest of us about your perfect right to be as God made you? It’s my job to educate myself about other folks than my own, and if I allowed myself to remain ignorant, more shame to me.

    • In the media, they seem to use natural women most of the time in advertisements. Even if the woman is with all white people. They also, use men with fro’s or locks it seems.

  • I am not African-American, so I don’t walk in your shoes. But I’m interested in knowing if African-American males in the workplace get the same reactions about their hair? This subject seems to be just as much a female issue as it is about race. I’m just saying there may be more going on here (double/double standards) than was first addressed.

    • Syl,
      I am not male, but I’d say that the majority of men wear their hair short and it’s when they start to wear it long that eyebrows start to rise. In addition, men are not held to the same beauty standards as women. It has been more than 100 years that many African American (and the Diaspora) women have been straightening their hair in order to assimilate, that people inside and outside the race have become accustomed to it and has seen it as the norm; also people possibly feeling that African American women prefer straight hair, and if that be the case, why are women with natural hair going against the norm. In addition, I think that since this has been going on for so long, there are many straight haired people that don’t know these women are straightening their hair, so they’re surprised when they see it in its natural state.
      I blame all this on ignorance, arrogance, stupidity and hatred.

  • Interesting topic – I just finished flat ironing my hair :c ) I choose to straighten my hair because it doesn’t take as long to care for it straight as it did when I wore my hair natural. Also, when I wore it natural, I was so self-conscious of my hairstyle. For my hair type, dry, straight hair is less noticeable than dry, naturally curly hair. Wearing my hair straight simplifies my life and I like the way I look – it’s a lifestyle choice.

  • Very well said Anita! Love your views! I definitely love your decision too, to stay natural and apply to the competitor company that accepts you for who you are! Inspiring! Thank you for sharing your story!

  • As a black female in middle management at a Fortune 500 company, I’ve worn my hair both natural and relaxed. I noticed that I got more compliments from my white coworkers when it was straight and more compliments from my black co-workers when it was natural. I chalk it up to cultural differences and preferences. I have never felt as if “going natural” hindered me from professional advancement. Personally I have no preference to how I wear my hair. it’s how I feel at any given time in my life. I do feel however, it must always be well kept and neat whether natural or straight. Long unkempt hair for whites or blacks is not allowed in most companies and military dress codes. I assume positive intent until I’m shown otherwise without doubt.

  • Anita your article is right on point! Your statement below is precisely how I feel.

    “.. I can honestly say to a potential employer: “If you can’t handle my hair, then maybe I don’t need to work here.” Yes, acceptance of my hair is one of several litmus tests for whether or not I will choose your company over another.”

    Why do we feel we are obligated to change ourselves for a job? My hair has absolutely nothing to do with the skills that I bring to my job as a Project Manager. If an employer can’t see that then they don’t deserve me.

  • Do some of you feel like you should “fake it till you make it”? Most of you feel comfortable wearing your natural hair in the office, but you failed to recognize that you already have the job. What about us who are interviewing and looking for work. It is hard to get a job, especially in a predominately white area, with natural hair and/or protective styles. Before I say a word, they automatically see me as a black woman and, unfortunately, I am in the business field, so the employers might not see my hair style choice as ‘professional’. During interviews, most of the time, I am more focused on how my hair is looking or if they are judging me more than anything else that matters.

    Wouldn’t you believe that some of us just “fake it till we make it”? When I get to a certain point in my career, I can probably look and do however I want without the fear of being judged because they know me better.

  • Carol Harper-Holden

    I commend you for standing up for what you believe in. If that company you wanted you to work there they would of excepted you for who and what you are. A strong black woman. I am glad that you decided to work for another company.

  • Thank you all for what I’ve read here today. I’m a 17 year old African American young women and I’m a proud to say so. I’ve been natural all my life and in my middle school days I tried everything in me to make my hair straight or “tame it” but in a matter of time I realized my natural hair wasn’t made to be “tamed”. It’s wild, ruthless, and bold. As soon as I gave up on torturing it, it began to love me as I to it. Now I stand tall in the young natural community encouraging my fellow African Americans to so the same. To look what we were made to look like despite of what ANYONE had to say. Beauty of being you and I am now me with my natural hair.

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