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Job recruiters perceive Black women with natural hairstyles as less professional, Duke study finds

Black women with natural hairstyles are commonly perceived by job recruiters as less professional, according to new research from the Fuqua School of Business. 

In a series of four studies, researchers found evidence of a natural hair bias. The investigations demonstrate that “Black women with natural (vs. straightened) hairstyles were perceived as less professional and less likely to be interviewed for a job,” as stated in the paper, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

The idea for the study had been on the back burner for a while, said Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, one of the two researchers of the study and senior associate dean of executive MBA and non-degree programs in Fuqua.

In 2007, Rosette and a colleague published what she called a “literature review slash theory paper,” analyzing the perceptions of black women in attempting to style their hair and conforming to mainstream expectations. 

When co-researcher Christy Zhou Koval, then Rosette’s doctoral student in Fuqua, asked about various projects, Rosette mentioned that paper. The idea to empirically test some of the suggestions put forth in the theory paper struck a chord with Koval, so the two began to work on the project.

One part of the study involved recruiting several participants to rate profiles of Black and white female job candidates with various hairstyles on scales of professionalism and competence. Black women with natural hairstyles were perceived as the least professional across all comparison groups.

In another part of the project, participants were asked to pose as job recruiters for either a consulting firm or an advertising agency. They were then tasked with rating a Black female applicant with either a natural or straightened hairstyle on professionalism and competence. 

In the consulting industry, applicants with natural hairstyles were perceived as less professional. However, when participants posed as advertising recruiters, there was no difference in perceptions of professionalism and competence between Black women with straightened hairstyles and those with natural hairstyles, an outcome the authors attributed to the relaxed and creative environment of the field.

Rosette and her co-author were not surprised by the results of their research.

“As a researcher, you always put forth a hypothesis and you never know what your results are going to be, whether they're going to be confirmed or not, but this is what we predicted,” Rosette said.

Rosette also emphasized the general lack of understanding about the hair texture of Black women, noting that equating natural hair with unprofessionalism has serious ramifications for Black women. 

“Along [with] the physical implications in terms of the health of your hair by straightening your hair with chemicals or with heat, or wearing weaves, there’s also the mental aspect of, ‘My current natural state isn't good enough and so therefore, I have to change myself in some way,’” she said.

The results of the study have been reported widely by various news outlets, which has not gone unnoticed by Rosette.

“Given that we have so many different societal issues that we are dealing with, and for this one to kind of get the attention that it has gotten, I think says something,” she said.

Beyond general awareness and understanding of natural hair, Rosette said that she hopes discrimination against natural hair will one day be prohibited by legislation.

“Arming people with legislation, an existing legislation that says this is the law and you cannot discriminate based upon a person's hair texture… would be a nice place to get going in terms of seeing some results,” Rosette said. 

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