With the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in full swing, many people are starting to wonder how deep the roots of racism go within our current society. We have been able to make connections to the beige pencil crayon being called skin tone, the lack of representation within the corporate and political landscape, and even regarding tattoos. However, an MBA student named Rosalia found something alarming during a random google search of “unprofessional hairstyles for work.” The images that came up during the search were largely Black individuals with their natural hair, while on the “professional” side, the majority of the images represented a very Eurocentric look. But Google cannot just pull these images out of thin air. They come from blogs, articles, Pinterest, and other platforms. People have posted these images and labeled them professional versus unprofessional.
This begs the question, though: why is it that Black hair is branded as “unprofessional,” while the Eurocentric view of beauty is deemed as “professional?” These results may be a strong indication of our own biases. However, when you trail back to the sources of these images, many of the articles are criticizing bans on Black hairstyles such as dreadlocks or ridiculous pressure to straighten their hair. So ultimately, the algorithm pulled these images surrounding talks of “unprofessional hair.” It does not represent the inherent biases at Google, but it does bring up a valid question regarding our biases in general.
For a second, imagine you are going for an interview for a large company. What do you picture your interviewer as? Do they have long hair, curly hair, gelled hair, etc.? I asked a few of my friends this same question, and the results were not surprising. Many of us, when we think of a professional such as an interviewer, we imagine them to have gelled hair, or straight hair, or hair in a bun. Something restrictive. Very rarely do we imagine someone with voluminous or curly hair, but why?
Where do these biases stem from?
A lot of our inherent biases come from the macro-culture that influences our norms. These cultural norms include aspects such as hairstyle, language, style of dress, and communication style. These norms are rooted in Eurocentric ideals and are reinforced by the organization’s senior leadership. When you look closely at the corporate environment, every employee starts to look very similar. This is not a coincidence. This is an intentional choice and a product of bias within the recruitment process. People are often employed based on how well they will “fit” within the work environment. The average individual assumes this means they are selected based on experience and mindset. However, this very much is based on physical appearance. This biased recruitment process explains the lack of representation we see in some of the major companies in North America.
So, what about the employees who differ from the established norm? These individuals have reported increased difficulty with accessing influential social networks. They need to “fit in” in order to access these resources and get the promotions they deserve. Many people of color, especially Black individuals, are faced with the choice: to either assimilate or get excluded. But why must people of color make a choice between their ethnicity or culture, and their career? Within a work environment, psychological safety is important for every employee and involves embracing cultural differences. It describes the degree to which individuals feel they can contribute their ideas without fear of negative consequences. Lower psychological safety can negatively influence engagement, innovation, financial outcomes, and creativity in the workplace.
How do we fix these inherent biases in the corporate environment?
Diversity training may be a starting point but is still far from addressing the root of the problem. Professional environments favoring a Eurocentric view of beauty and professionalism need to be analyzed on our workspaces. These cultural biases influence the systemic racism present within our society. Dismantling systemic racism starts with identifying the symptoms of the problem in our everyday lives. When systemic racism is so far ingrained in our culture and society, dismantling it brick by brick is the most feasible way to address it.