Bias Against Natural Hair Limits Opportunities for Black Women, Study Suggests

biases against natural hair illo

Bailey Mariner / Verywell


Key Takeaways

  • Natural hair has made a big comeback amongst people of African descent in recent years.
  • Despite the push for widespread social acceptance of traditional Black hairstyles, new evidence shows employers still favor straight hair.
  • This preference leads to fewer opportunities for Black women who opt out of wearing straight or Eurocentric hairstyles.

Recent evidence published in Social Psychological and Personality Science upholds long-held claims that Black women with straightened hair, and white women, are treated more favorably in the workplace than Black women wearing natural hairstyles. More importantly, the evidence suggests bias against Black women wearing natural hairstyles, which can have a negative impact on their professional career.

This information arrives despite the latest resurgence of the natural hair movement, an effort encouraging those of African descent to embrace their natural hair texture. Yet natural Black hairstyles (including afros, curls, braids, locs and twists) are still heavily stigmatized both in and outside of the Black community.

Hair Bias Can Begin During Recruitment

The recent findings indicate hair bias often begins during the hiring process. During the study, participants from various racial backgrounds were asked to evaluate potential job candidates. According to researchers at Duke University, the recruiters were more likely to rate Black women wearing natural hairstyles less professional and less competent, and therefore, less likely to recommend them for job interviews, compared to Black women with straightened hair and white women. The scores for white women did not vary, even for those wearing their naturally curly hair.

Regardless of race, most participants were biased against Black women wearing natural hairstyles. Although this only occurred while evaluating mock candidates for consulting positions, where dress codes tend to be more conservative, creative industries are not exempt from racial bias. Recent protests in the United States in response to the brutal police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor spawned a racial reckoning in disproportionately white industries including publishing. 

Due to underrepresentation in corporate America, Black women are more susceptible to racist hiring practices and often lack the support needed to create positive change once inside an organization. According to research by the consulting firm McKinsey, white women made up 18% of the C-Suite in 2019, while white men accounted for 68%. Women of color, including Black, Asian, and Latina women, accounted for just 4% of the C-Suite.

Upholding White Beauty Standards

Hair bias often stems from stereotypes depicting natural Black hair as unclean, unkempt, and unsuitable for professional environments. In 2017, results from the "Good Hair" study revealed that white women perceived Black women’s textured hair as less attractive and less professional than “smooth hair." Black women feel pressured to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards in order to avoid social stigma.

According to the "Good Hair" Study:

  • Black women experience high anxiety related to haircare
  • Black women spend more money on their hair than white women
  • Black women spend more time on their hair than white women
  • 1 in 5 Black women feel obligated to straighten their hair for work

For many Black women, there is no choice. In the most extreme cases, Black women wearing natural hairstyles have been penalized for violating organizational dress code policies and forced to straighten their hair in order to avoid termination. Race-based hair discrimination is one example of how white supremacy continues to control the bodily autonomy of Black women. 

Despite their popularity, chemical hair straighteners are costly and can cause lasting hair damage. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that Black women using permanent hair dye every 5 to 8 weeks or more have a 60% increased risk of developing breast cancer.

The NIH findings also indicated that all women who use chemical hair straighteners every 5 to 8 weeks were 30% more likely to develop breast cancer—though the researchers noted that Black women use chemical hair straighteners more frequently than white women. Chemical hair straighteners are linked to cancer and other health risks because they contain carcinogens and other toxins.

Natural hairstyle bans are an example of how white supremacy continues to control the bodily autonomy of Black women. 

What Is Being Done?

In an effort to work toward improving racial equity in the workplace, some employers have implemented a practice called "blind hiring." Any information which may indicate race or gender is removed from application materials. However, some experts have warned that blind hiring is not a substitute for working toward systemic organizational changes which help prevent racist behavior.

Legislation to prevent race-based hair discrimination has already been signed into law by a handful of states, including New York, New Jersey, California, and most recently, Virginia. Currently, the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act is being considered by more than 20 additional states.

But in 2020, Black women should not be forced to have to wait for legislative changes that guard their basic human rights.

12 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Koval CZ, Rosette AS. The Natural Hair Bias in Job RecruitmentSoc Psychol Personal Sci. 2020. doi:10.1177/1948550620937937

  2. Mohdin A. Quartz. The natural hair movement is forgetting its radical roots.

  3. Akutekha E. HuffPost. How The Natural Hair Movement Has Failed Black Women

  4. de León C. Harris EA. The New York Times. #PublishingPaidMe and a Day of Action Reveal an Industry Reckoning.

  5. Hares S. Journal of Accountancy. How to get Black female leadership talent into the C-suite.

  6. McGill A, Godsil RD, MacFarlane J, et al. Perception Institute. The "Good Hair" Study: Explicit and Implicit Attitudes Toward Black Women's Hair.

  7. Ellis NT, Jones C. USA Today. Banning ethnic hairstyles 'upholds this notion of white supremacy.' States pass laws to stop natural hair discrimination.

  8. National Institutes of Health. Permanent hair dye and straighteners may increase breast cancer risk.

  9. Jacob SL, Cornell E, Kwa M, Funk WE, Xu S. Cosmetics and Cancer: Adverse Event Reports Submitted to the Food and Drug Administration. JNCI Cancer Spectr. 2018;2(2):pky012. doi:10.1093/jncics/pky012

  10. Bortz D. Society for Human Resource Management. Can Blind Hiring Improve Workplace Diversity?.

  11. Feldman J. Forbes. The Benefits And Shortcomings Of Blind Hiring In The Recruitment Process.

  12. Arefin DS. American Bar Association. Is Hair Discrimination Race Discrimination?.

By Shanon Lee
Shanon Lee is a health journalist whose work has been published in Forbes, the Washington Post, Women's Health, and more.