Hair and Hiring—An Examination of Afrocentric & Eurocentric Hair Styling

Angel Bird ‘21, Sha-neek Roper ‘21, Kiara Curet ‘21, Marcia Mendes ‘21
Nominated by Project Faculty Advisor Dr. Sabrina Speights for the Department of Business & Management, Wheaton College, Norton, MA

Negative stereotypes surrounding Afrocentric hairstyles (such as the Afro, locs, or braids) have significantly impacted the jobs made accessible to Black people in Western environments for decades. Our research group wanted to know if Black people still faced hair discrimination in the professional environment—specifically in the hiring process as it is one of the first major barriers to entry into the workforce. To add to the body of work around hair discrimination, we decided to narrow our research focus to the lives and experiences of Black American women in our region to ensure we produced meaningful statistical results based on the resources available to us during the semester.

As we began our investigation of this topic, we decided to take an intersectional approach and explore the ways Black American women are both racialized and gendered in the formation of racial stereotypes. During our exploration, we found that while many instances of modern-day stereotypes exist in media as Black women with natural hairstyles and darker-skin are often portrayed as unprofessional and undesirable, negative ideas around Afrocentric hairstyles actually have roots in modern the American chattel-slavery system. Not only did Black women face a number of gendered archetypes that over-sexualized or de-sexualized, Black women were also placed in a hierarchy on the plantation based on racial phenotypes, where women who appeared with more Afrocentric phenotypes performed grueling slave labor, had fewer positions of power over other enslaved Africans, and had less access to education and other important resources comparatively to Black women with more eurocentric features. After slavery was abolished, many hoped that the experiences of Black people would collectively improve, but the pressure to appear more Eurocentric in workplace environments persisted. As we concluded our preliminary, two major questions became apparent to us:

  1. Is there still a statistically significant bias against Afrocentric hairstyles (the afro, locs, braids, etc.) compared to eurocentric hairstyles (hairstyles commonly associated with eurocentric phenotypes (such as straight hair or loose curls)
  2. Does this bias change as the seniority of the candidate rises?

We chose to explore our hypothesis through an experiment because of the ability to manipulate our Independent Variables to uncover bias. To test our hypotheses, we surveyed 168 participants ~60% who were actual HR professionals and placed them in the scenario of a hiring manager. They were asked to rate a fictional candidate on a scale of 1-5 on researched qualities that are expected across most American industries. All candidates that the participants rated were qualified. What was changed was the actual image of the candidate shown (which would either feature a woman with an Afrocentric or Eurocentric hairstyle) and the job level of the candidate (entry-level or manager). What we found was a statistical significance in a positive bias towards Eurocentric hairstyles compared to Afrocentric hairstyles, which were rated less professional. What was also interesting was that a negative bias was more pronounced at entry-level seniority, whereas less bias existed at the management seniority level.

While research limits and time constraints leave many of our follow-up questions unanswered, what remains is the issue of hair discrimination. Black people in America still do not have federal laws that protect them from bias that exists in the professional world based off of the hatred of their natural bodies. We hope that our research adds to the growing body of work around hair discrimination and that with American society becoming more diverse as time progresses, that our nation reconciles with biases that face significant barriers to collective Black survival.