Whose Hair is Professional Any Way?: Natural Hair in the Workplace

Source: #WOCinTech Chat (wocintechchat.com)

Source: #WOCinTech Chat (wocintechchat.com)

If you can't already tell, I'm very passionate about changing the definition of "professional hair" to include black hair of all textures and styles. It's the way our hair naturally grows and we shouldn't feel pressure to straighten it or paranoia that it's causing us to miss out on opportunities. But, recently, I've started thinking more about what exactly "professional natural hair" looked like when a young woman was venting that her white supervisors approached her about her hair being unprofessional. In this instance, I had to agree, but not because her hair was natural. From the photo, her hair was cute but could have used a stylist's touch to give it shape and the style itself was better suited for the weekend than the workplace. I struggled with whether or not to say something since I didn't know her well.

Finally, I said something! I would have shut this blog down ASAP if I didn't. But it stuck with me because I couldn't stop thinking about whose place it is to make those judgments on whose natural hair makes the cut by "professional standards".

What is "Professional" Natural hair?

In my opinion, professional natural hair should always be neat. Of course, that's subjective but here is how I define it for the most conservative, business formal setting where dress codes tend to require that everyone not stand out very much:

  • Detangled   
  • Moisturized
  • Not wet and product residue is not visible
  • Trimmed ends
  • No visible heat damage if ends are exposed
  • Conservatively styled:
    • Protective style (low bun, French braid, crown twists, medium length braid/twist extensions, etc)
    • TWAs (no more than 4-6 inches after shrinkage or pulled back with headband if long enough)
    • Locs (neatly parted, uniform in size, and freshly twisted)
    • Twistouts/braidouts/wash and gos that has been cut professionally into shape and haven't been fluffed for volume.
  • No more than an inch of new growth if in braids or locs. 

If you don't work at a stiff company culture, however, the same rules apply but you can get a more creative with styles. Fluffed hair, high buns, braided updos, huge puffs, a not so teeny weeny afro, and twists that are not quite ready to turn into twistouts yet should be fine in most business casual settings. 

(Source: #WOCinTech Chat & Jopwell Collection)

Texture discrimination

Some people have this idea that only certain hair textures should be allowed in the workplace, i.e: hair with a visible curl pattern that is type 2-4a curls or a defined twistout. This mindset tends to exclude the kinkiest textures and I'm not in that camp. I think all textures are suitable in the workplace, but you also have to find the intersection between what works for you and your company. If you have very tight or undefined hair that's bigger than a TWA but not long enough for a bun, I think kinky/undefined wash and gos, puffs, roll & tuck updos, and headbands are all good options. If you're looking for 4C work hair inspiration, check out @NaturalMe4C's Instagram and YouTube.

Can I tell my fellow black woman that her hair isn't looking professional? 

This is tricky. I would say it depends on your relationship. You should be careful when approaching this topic with someone you don't have a rapport with. I once had a black female boss tell me that I should tell an intern that her hair needed to be neater. It was clear to both of us that the intern was not tying down her at night nor redoing her bun for the week. I tried to approach the topic as sensitively and privately as I could, sugar coating all the way, but the intern was still offended. Next thing I know, my boss is telling me to run to the beauty supply store and do this girl's hair in the bathroom before a partner meeting. Mortified doesn't even begin to cover how both the intern and I felt in this moment. I hooked her up with a cute style and she really appreciated it. But the next day it was clear that, once again, she didn't try to preserve the style at night. I was told to talk to her again but this time, she was fed up and thought we were too focused on looks.  

It's unfortunate, but as women - black women especially - we are judged on presentation as much as, if not more than our talent. That's not to say you need to be Olivia Pope, Jessica Pearson, and Mary Jane Paul every day. More often, it means not standing out for looks. When the working world already thinks that natural hair is unkempt, wild, or unclean, any confirmation of that reinforces the biases we're already facing. So if you see a black colleague and you think their hair is not fitting with company image, do these three things:

  1. Stop and think whether your thoughts stem from your personal preference or are rooted in a fear of how non-black peers will view this person. You want to avoid projecting any insecurities or biases onto others. We're already dealing with enough as it is. 
  2. If you decided that objectively your peer's hair is not in line with company culture, strike up a casual conversation about hair without mentioning that you think you think this woman should "fix" her hair. You can bring up other styles you think may look cute on her or struggles you may be having with your own hair as a way to see if she might want your advice.
  3. If she doesn't see anything wrong, ask for your advice, and no one else in your office has mentioned it in a negative light, just leave it alone. Unless this woman is rocking a style that seems inspired by The Weeknd, you're probably better off letting it go. 

How do I navigate a company culture that is hostile to Natural Hair Styles?

It can be shocking and hurtful to learn that others may disapprove of your hair choices. However, try not to get instantly defensive or paranoid. Instead, try to determine whether the criticism has any validity. Does it seem like it stems from a distaste for black hair or would your best friend also agree that you could do a little better? If your hair is fine and you absolutely know it, don't flip out on HR just yet. Have a conversation with whoever is approaching you to educate them on your hair and explain that while it may be different from those with naturally straight hair, it's just as acceptable. It's not distracting, it is just the way your hair grows. If they insist you straighten or change it in a way you're uncomfortable with, let them know that unless there is a good reason, you would prefer not to either because it will be damaging or simply because there is nothing wrong with your hair as is. 

All in all, there are styles that are inappropriate for a corporate environment whether hair is straight or curly. However, while the most formal company culture may want everyone to look identical and nondescript, natural hair automatically doesn't "blend in". For this reason, it's important for black women in these environments to reset the status quo for what professional natural hair is and can be. As more of us get passed our discomfort and enter the workforce with our fros, braids, and locs proudly bouncing and swinging, the stigma and misconceptions will start to fade until finally a VP with a type 4 wash and go attracts as much attention as a silky blowout. 

Navigating the politics and Misperceptions of natural hair in the workplace is stressful and we all wish we could just focus on our work. Let us know If you have any stories or concerns about natural hair in the workplace in the comments below.