In this article:
Bringing our whole selves to work
Most of us spend an average of 35 hours a week at work. For some of us (luckily not me), that means having to present a “different’ or “toned down” version of ourselves to fit into the idea of what we consider to be professional. There are so many things we feel we need to change to fit this mould – from the way we dress, to how we speak, or even what foods we bring into the office.
Working from home has been revolutionary for so many of us, we’ve all been there – getting up at 08.55 for a 9am Zoom call. As long as our top half looks presentable – we’re good to go! Our colleagues can hear what’s happening in our home office (AKA kitchen table), see what kind of house decor we have and probably realise we’re addicted to Amazon because we have to go get the door on almost every call.
But for many black and brown people, there’s an element of bringing our whole selves to work that’s often overlooked. Our hair.
But it’s “just hair”
The most typical response when a black person is expressing how their hair is perceived is… “but it’s just hair”. From my own personal experience, it’s definitely not just hair… although I wish it was. The history of all hair types and hairstyles is rich and meaningful. Afro-textured hair and hairstyles have always been an important symbol of wealth, identity, family, heritage, age, tribe, religion, and social rank, as well as a visual language. But like many African characteristics, this was erased through the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism.
Through social media, many hair movements and trends have started that have reconnected black and brown people to their roots (pun fully intended). My personal hair journey led me to doing volunteer work for Project Embrace, a non profit organisation that champions Afrovisibility through annual billboards and hair courses to ensure there is positive representation of afro hair. Afrovisilibilty simply refers to increasing representation of natural afro textured hair. The aim is to change the narrative that fuels the implicit bias against Afro hair in the workplace, media and society.
Through Project Embrace, I was introduced to the Halo Collective. The Halo Collective are an alliance of organisations and individuals working to create a future without hair discrimination, founded by young Black organisers. They are calling on every school and workplace in the UK to protect the rights of black students and staff by adopting the Halo Code.
The presence of such initiatives can only mean one thing… Houston, we have a problem.
Hair Discrimination (in the workplace)
You might be wondering how that plays out in the modern world. To put it into perspective, picture this. You’ve just had a job interview for a position you know you’re overqualified for, so of course, you come out feeling pretty confident.. You hear back and just as you thought… you got the job ? But the offer is conditional. They’d like you to dye your naturally blonde hair jet black and curl it for work every day. They feel this will make clients more comfortable. Sounds a bit ridiculous, right? But unfortunately, this is pretty much the reality for many black people. Being told or made to feel their natural curly hair is not right for the workplace and must be straightened.
Despite hair being a protected racial characteristic under UK law, natural afro textured hair is still seen widely as “unprofessional” or “messy”. In the UK, 1 in 5 black women feel societal pressure to straighten their hair for work. But because our hair is naturally curly/coarse/coiled, this often means we chemically straighten our hair with relaxer. I spent over 7 years relaxing my hair every three months. What it does is quite literally burn the curls out of your hair. Research now shows that regular use of relaxer can lead to life-threatening health conditions from infertility to heart disease. Unfortunately, within the black community, in an attempt to fit into western beauty standards and come across as more ‘tamed’, it’s still a very common practice.
There’s now a lot of research being done to highlight the link between Afro hair discrimination and mental health. But if we even look at it in a practical sense, having to alter the way your hair naturally grows, costs time and money, and is detrimental to physical health for many too.
Hair discrimination at work doesn’t just take place in the corporate environment or in an office, it happens in so many industries. In the sports world, swimming to be precise, swimming caps designed for natural black hair were finally permitted… this year! And this after being banned at the Tokyo Olympics.
Again, social media is so powerful in bringing such issues to light. If you’re still not convinced this is an issue that needs to be addressed… not even celebrities are exempt. Earlier this year, former first lady Michelle Obama spoke about her natural hair journey. If you’re keeping up with the Obama’s, you’ll have noticed her rocking a lot more natural hair styles recently. She said herself, Americans ‘weren’t ready’ for her natural hair during Barrack Obama’s tenure at the White House.
So, even the first lady of one of the most powerful nations in the world, was afraid of how her natural hair (styles) would be perceived.
The Halo Code
Being part of the DEI team, it’s often hard to find tangible things we can do to make sure our work environment is inclusive, especially in a small team like we are at Empower.
That’s why I’m so happy Empower has adopted the Halo Code. Based on personal experience and conversations with others, it feels great to know that hair discrimination is not something someone will face at Empower – whether it’s as an employee, consultant or simply in an interview.
If you’d like to know more about what that means, here’s what we’ve committed to by adopting the Halo Code at Empower ?
For me, how comfortable and confident I feel at work definitely impacts my performance. The more comfortable I feel being myself, the better my work. Though it may seem like a small step, it’s a great feeling knowing that I’ve positively contributed to the work environment at Empower.
- Now it’s your turn to explore and sign up to the Halo Code for your workplace