What Law Firms Need to Know About Discrimination Based on Hairstyle

September 27, 2021

Beautiful. Boundless. Political. Art. Black hair in its natural state of kinks and coils is as unique as it is versatile. This uniqueness and versatility yields styles such as locs and braids. Unfortunately, they’re labeled as “unprofessional hairstyles” in some workplaces. Many companies still use policies that favor a Eurocentric standard and use coded language such as “neat,” “well-groomed,” “polished,” or “not distracting.” This language privileges certain hairstyles and hair textures and excludes others. It hints at a desire to create a workforce of employees who wear their hair straight.

For Black women, this means enduring harsh heat and chemical treatments. Or it means installing costly, high-maintenance extensions or weaves. To do otherwise doesn’t feel like an option for many Black women. Often they fear discrimination when expressing their natural beauty in the workplace. Dove’s groundbreaking CROWN Research Study shows these fears aren’t without merit. It found that Black women’s hair is 3.4 times more likely to be viewed as unprofessional. Black women are 83% more likely to report being judged more harshly on their looks than other women. Black women:

●      are more policed in the workplace

●      feel their hair is targeted

●      are consistently rated as less ready for job performance 

Further, a recent study found that the way Black women style their hair impacts job offers. Those with natural hairstyles were less likely to land job interviews than Black women with straightened hair or white women.

So hair discrimination has real, measurable social and economic impact on Black women. And Black men can also feel the sting of hair discrimination. Take lawyer Marcus Shute, for example. After growing his locs, he was told that he wouldn’t be a successful lawyer if he kept them. He was also passed over for many promotions because he “didn’t fit the look.”

Such discrimination occurs often in law firms and corporate environments that have a stricter dress code. But it can affect Black people in any industry. Sonequa Martin-Green, who stars in Star Trek: Discovery, knows this all too well.

“I truly believed that I could wear my hair natural in my regular life. But if I wanted to do anything industry related, I was gonna have to straighten it,” she says. “There was just absolutely no way I was going to be received or accepted if it was natural. And that is so debilitating to actually believe that the way your hair naturally comes out of your scalp is ugly, unacceptable, unprofessional.”

Martin-Green’s statement reflects the experiences of many Black women. That’s why the CROWN Act, passed in the House of Representatives in September 2020 and awaiting vote in the Senate, is so important. This act makes hair discrimination illegal so that people of color who wear their hair natural or in protective hairstyles won’t be penalized. Currently, there are only ten states that recognize this as law.

Whether the law passes or not, it’s critical for law firm leaders to become more educated on this issue. Designing workplace policies in inclusive, nondiscriminatory ways is crucial not just to increasing and protecting diversity, but also to staying relevant and competing for top talent in a competitive marketplace.

Need help communicating internally, or with recruits, about changes to your policies? Send us an email.