Corporate America’s War on Hair

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Women struggle with a number of things in the workplace. From crude comments to an ever-present and increasing wage gap, they are put at odds with success in any career path. Some companies, though, take initiatives to make workplaces more equal among genders and are working to close the wage gap.

But, for women of color, a whole new kind of oppressive work environment ensues. Not only do people question their work ethic based on their gender, but a number of women of color have found that their race plays an even larger role in the workplace. With the yearlong rise of the natural hair movement, many minority women are feeling a backlash from corporate America.

The rise of the natural hair movement was encouraged by popular films and celebrities of color choosing to style their hair naturally. Psychologists and researchers have found that the movement is not merely a trend; it is helping to increase men and women’s self-esteem and body image.

I had the opportunity to sit down with an unnamed intern who was recently offered a high-paying job at a finance corporation. She described her personal journey with her natural hair and how corporate America is stifling this movement.

Make Muse: Was there ever an instance where you were afraid to wear your hair in braids? Are there rules encouraging employees to wear their hair differently?

Intern: There aren’t any rules, but yes I was definitely afraid to wear my box braids to work. I actually interviewed with them in and initially didn’t think about whether or not to remove them before I started. However, after talking to my family about it and hearing stories from my cousin about the comments she received when she wore braids to work, I ended up taking them out and it was very emotional for me. When I walked onto my floor of 200+ people the first day and saw that I was one of 3 black people there, I knew I made the right decision.

Make Muse: Did you feel a certain pressure working in a corporate setting that might have not been there for a white male employee?

Intern: I definitely felt that I always needed to be well dressed, no wrinkles, hair perfect, nails clean, etc. because I was aware that everyone was always looking at me. Some of my white male coworkers would come in not so put together and no one would bat an eye but I knew that if I came in the same way, it would be a problem.

Make Muse: Do you feel that the sacrifice of changing your hair impacted how you felt about the company?

Intern: I felt somewhat comforted that I did interview with braids and still got the job. However, after completing my internship and coming back to school, I did put my braids back in. Two weeks into school, my company came to campus to host recruiting events at which I was asked to speak. When I walked into the first event and saw many of my bosses for the first time since my internship ended, I was really thrown off by how many alarming looks I got. I often don’t remember how different and uncommon my braids are to non-black people until I see their reactions after walking into a room but it was very unsettling to see some of my coworkers almost disturbed by my appearance. Hearing comments like “oh you changed your hair?” and “what exactly are these braids made of?” etc. seem harmless to a bystander but it definitely speaks volumes about the people I work with and the company culture/expectations.

Make Muse: Did your company have certain protections for workers of diverse genders and races?

Intern: My company is definitely aware that there is a major lack of diversity within their employees and admittedly are working hard to change that. In fact, our intern class had the highest percentage of black students in company history. Within the company, there are various organizations for employees to join such as the Pride group, Black affinity, Latinos at XYZ Bank, Women in Finance etc. in hopes to provide a sense of community for everyone in the company. During the first weekend of my internship, the company hosted an event for all new hire diversity employees (Black, Latino, LGBTQ+) at a baseball game and it was one of my favorite moments at the company. Being able to see all of us together and talk about our experiences being a minority etc. was very comforting and said a lot about the company’s intentions. A lunch with two of the company’s head executive officers was also hosted by the Black affinity group for all Black interns. This event was more of a casual conversation in which we were asked to talk about our experiences, what the company can do to make us feel more welcome, how they can recruit more diverse employees, etc. To see people so high up in the company willing to host such a lunch and hear from their interns was very moving.

Make Muse: Did you experience a wage gap? Was this pertaining to experience level?

Intern: At my company, people of the same title (analyst, associate, VP, Director, Managing Director) receive the same pay so in that sense, there isn’t a wage gap. However, there is a major disparity in the types of people being promoted to these higher positions and the company is transparent about that. At the Black affinity lunch, they informed us that ~80% of the Black employees in our office held the title of Director or below meaning most weren’t even being considered for Managing Directors, one of the highest paying positions in the company. A similar statistic represents the amount of women in these positions as well. They informed us that they are working on their promotion process to ensure this is improved, but it was definitely a red flag to me.

Make Muse: Would you feel comfortable wearing your hair natural to work? In braids? Why or why not?

Intern: At least for my first few years, I would not. I have, and will continue to wear my hair straight or in a very tight bun to ensure my natural hair pattern isn’t showing. Quite simply, I know that my blackness is foreign to many of my bosses and my chances of being brought on to certain deals and into various client meetings is based on my appearance and whether or not they are comfortable with it. I hope to one day be able to rock my natural hair and put in braids without a care in the world to show those under me that it is ok to be yourself and embrace your heritage. However, I don’t see myself doing this for at least a few years.