I always knew I was different. Born in the mid-80s to black Ghanaian parents in a small Berkshire town, I was always one of the few black faces in school. Along with the very obvious difference in my skin colour, my hair was another clear differentiator.
In the sea of black, blonde, brown and red, straight or slightly curly hair, that moves in the wind and framed faces; my hair, on the other hand, didn’t move when the wind blew, grew horizontally in thickness and length. It seemed to my classmates to be a bit out of this world, strange and alien.
My mum would style my hair in African threading, plaits and twists, with colourful clips, bows and ribbons, which I loved. People would comment on my hairstyles, but what was more common were the questions about hair wash frequency, texture questions, stares and people putting their hands in or on my hair.
Keeping up appearances?
Legal-ease: Dress codes
One in eight workers believe appearance affects their career
It’s time we stopped telling women what to wear to work
These incidents have always been something that I both accept and loathe at the same time. As I have grown, I now have got the language and the agency to articulate myself and express myself through my hair. However, many black women’s relationship with their hair is complex and challenging.
‘Afro’ textured hair: how is it different to European hair?
Hair types vary, not just by ethnicity, but genetics also affect growth rate, thickness, curl pattern and porosity.
Afro hair is extremely curly and coily and because of these coils and curls, stress builds up at each point. Retaining moisture is harder for afro/curly hair and can become brittle if not well hydrated and treated regularly with oils, water and cremes.
Many people engage in what is called protective styling to help manage and protect their hair by using wigs, extensions, plaits, thread plus head coverings. However, it seems like the corporate world and ‘business’ ideals only accept hair that follows European standards.
Hair discrimination and work
Hair that grows out of a person’s head doesn’t seem like something that would form the basis of discrimination. Hair that is deemed as acceptable, professional and ‘corporate’ the world over is often based on western hair standards of straight, neat and obedient hair. However, hair comes in all shapes, colours and sizes.
My personal experience with being discriminated against because of my hair was mostly non-verbal in the shape or stares or people pointing, all the way to people commenting things like “your hair is weird”, “your hair isn’t normal” ,”your hair is like wire wool” (the stuff you buff metal with; I was about 14 and in a design and technology class at the time) “you can’t get your hair like mine because your hair’s afro”.
Afro-hair is versatile and has been used in a variety of ways throughout ancient practices to symbolise and communicate different things.
However, afro hair is hardly ever seen in a positive light, especially by mainstream Eurocentric societies. Perhaps a throwback from the 1960s black power movement, afro hair has often been seen as a political statement. Yet embracing hair that naturally grows out of a person’s head, even if that grows differently to what is perceived as the norm, should not be a basis to separate, make people feel othered or discriminate.
Hair discrimination cases
The term hair discrimination might seem far-fetched or extreme for those who have never experienced it. However, hair texture, especially afro hair textures, are markers of African heritage and ancestry just as much as skin tone is.
Even though hair type or texture is not a protected characteristic highlighted by the Equality Act, race is. Afro hair type is a marker of ethnicity, and insisting on the hair of a particular type being warn in particular way can be seen as a form of indirect discrimination that stems from a person’s race.
Jules applied for a job at luxury hotel in 2023 at The Ritz in central London. He had made it to the final round of interviews for the dining reservations supervisor position and was sent the organisation’s grooming policy. The policy from 2021 said: “unusual hairstyles including spikey hair, afro style” were not allowed. He felt disappointed and withdrew from the role. The hotel apologised and said he was sent an out-of-date policy.
Powderly, from south London, had braids in her hair when she went for a job interview at a recruitment agency but was told they were not suitable for the job she was applying for, which was selling high-end products. She was asked to take her braids out as her “employers wouldn’t like it”. She refused to take out her braids and subsequently was told she didn’t get the role but never heard why.
In 2015 Odoffin, a Bournemouth University graduate, had her job offer revoked because the company did not accept braided hair as part of their uniform requirements. It responded to her refusal to take them out by saying “if you are unable to take them out, unfortunately I won’t be able to offer you any work”.
Eurocentric styles and preferences that proliferate the media and are evident in workplace policies preclude and make it difficult for people, especially black people, to bring their whole selves to work.
Instead, Eurocentric hair styles and harmful hair manipulation which include black people chemically treating their hair or wearing expensive wigs or weaves, further add to the view that blackness in many of its representations is not acceptable and or inferior.
A movement set up in 2020 by a group of young activists called the Halo Collective is raising awareness of hair discrimination in the UK.
The collective is also encouraging educational establishments and workplaces to acknowledge and fight against discriminatory policies that unfairly impact black people with afro-textured hair. Anyone who is interested can sign up here.
Solutions for HR
Ensure your work practices and policies are not unfairly affecting one group of people over another. For example, if you have a dress or uniform policy ensure it is inclusive and does not disproportionately negatively affect black people’s hair textures.
Educate yourselves as an organisation about hair care practices from other cultures.
Refrain from making derogatory comments about colleagues’ hair, even if you see it as ‘banter’ or a harmless question.
Grace Mansah-Owusu is an organisational psychologist at Oxford HR