Black Hair Big Law (Part III): ‘Professionalism,’ Work Hair, And Interview Hair

unhappy black female lawyerEd. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on motherhood in the legal profession, in partnership with our friends at MothersEsquire. Welcome Angela Mackie-Rutledge back to our pages. Click here if you’d like to donate to MothersEsquire.

In 2022, legal scholar Leah Goodridge published a paper, “Professionalism as a Racial Construct” in the UCLA Law Review. In the paper, Goodridge delves into the intricate construct of professionalism, interrogating its latent role as a mechanism to regulate people of color within the legal profession. A similar topic was explored by Aysa Grey in her 2019 article, “The Bias of ‘Professionalism’ Standards.”  Grey’s article was premised on the notion that the prevailing standards of professionalism are shaped by the systemic and institutional prioritization of whiteness. In its article, “How Hair Discrimination Affects Black Women at Work,” Harvard Business Review reported on the 2023 CROWN Workplace Research study which found that Black women’s hair was two-and-a-half times more likely to be perceived as unprofessional. The survey also found that more than half of the Black women surveyed felt that they had to wear their hair straight in a job interview in order to be successful and that two-thirds of those [Black women] surveyed changed their hair for a job interview.

In preparation for the Black Hair Big Law Symposium, I conducted research on how Black legal professionals (attorneys, solicitors, law professors, law students, paralegals, etc.) wear their hair to work and the experiences they have had. Here, in Part 3 of the Black Hair Big Law series, we’ll delve deeper into the numbers and what they mean. Our survey asked a total of 10 questions. You can read about the first part of our survey in Black Hair Big Law (Part II): The Harshest Critics Of Black Attorneys’ Hair.

Question 4: How Do You Wear Your Hair To Work?

When asked “How do you wear your hair to work?” Wash n’ go (WNG) was the most popular style at 26.47%.  In case you’re not familiar with it, the WNG style involves washing then conditioning one’s hair without much time drying and styling it.

The next popular answer was “other.” Within “other,” ponytails, buns, and blowouts showed up as frequent write-in answers in that category.

Question 5: How Did You Wear Your Hair When You Interviewed For Your Job?

This was the kind of question where the response “other” told us more information than the statistics themselves: 29.06% responded “other.” Within “other,” the most common write-in responses were: buns, silk presses, blowouts, and ponytails.

What’s remarkable about this answer is that buns, silk presses, blowouts, and ponytails are all usually very straight, very polished styles. This question along with the prior question (“How do you wear your hair to work”) denotes a predisposition for legal professionals to style their hair in a straight style for the preliminary job interview, then, when gainfully employed, these individuals switch to some other style. When our quantitative analyst crunched the numbers, however, he concluded the opposite of what we hypothesized. He concluded that Black women were wearing their hair in straight European style at work in general and not just at the interview stage.

Why are these individuals wearing straight hairstyles rather than natural or protective styles? Is it a personal choice or is this indicative of the pressure Black women at law firms feel to conform to a white European standard? The CROWN Workplace Research study and Aysa Grey’s “The Bias of ‘Professionalism’ Standards” appear to support a conclusion that the hairstyles reflect the type of pressure highlighted by the CROWN study.

In 2018, Legal Cheek (UK) posted an article titled, “It’s virtually impossible to reach the top of City Firms without straight hair.” If the employment situation is as bad as Legal Cheek wants us to believe, then wearing one’s hair straight to an interview could be viewed as merely a means of revenue protection. If Black women feel that the only (or best) way to get a job in law is to straighten their hair, of course, why wouldn’t they? The larger point is, however, that they shouldn’t have to bear the emotional or physical toll of playing into a system that is biased against them but instead should be recognized from the outset for the value add they bring with their experience and credentials (not their hair).

It’s worth noting that WNG, Bantu knots, braids, locs, twists, and Afros, largely did not appear in the write-in section of how hair was worn to the job interview.  Why weren’t the majority of individuals in the survey wearing those styles to job interviews? This survey was not comprehensive enough to yield an answer to that question. Empirical evidence provides some insight that in an industry that is overwhelming white (79.8%, according to Zippia), there’s a financial incentive to shun Afrocentric hairstyles when interviewing for jobs.

Question 6: Have You Ever Changed Your Hair To Feel More Professional At Work?

60.98% responded that they have changed their hair to feel more professional at work.

Question 7: Has A Colleague Or Client Ever Remarked Negatively About Your Hair?

18.63% responded that a colleague or client has remarked negatively about their hair.

Is There Anything Else You’d Like To Tell Us? Can You Tell Us About How Your Hair Impacts Your Work Life?

44.39% of individuals left comments, and they certainly had a lot to say. A few of the comments:

  • “I never want my appearance to be a distraction, hair included. Practicing in courts in which mostly white men practice and preside, makes me think about how my appearance may affect the perceived effectiveness of my advocacy.”
  • “Because I have been told that I am being judged on intelligence, class (caste), and assimilation abilities with a quick glance, I cannot afford to look unconventional, or be individualized without risking appearing amiss and out of place.”
  • “My hair doesn’t impact my work life. I am white with red hair and I wear it in a bun, pony tail, or down.”
  • “I was told to change my hair when I entered law school. In law school, when in mock trial competitions my hair was judged and questioned by my coaches. Despite it all, I am who I am. My hair is a part of who I am. Thankful for my Howard University experience that helped solidify that being Black is not a badge of shame. Neither is my hair.”

In the next and final article of our series, we’ll delve more into the first-person experiences given about how hair impacts legal work life.

If you missed the first two articles of our series, be sure to catch up here:

Angela Mackie-RutledgeAngela Mackie-Rutledge is a dual British & American citizen and the mum of twin boys and a cheeky singleton girl. She holds a BFA from New York University an MSc from the University of Brighton (UK) and an LLB from the University of Law in London. Angela is a former Mastermind contestant where her specialty topic was Morrissey, his life and solo career. She was a winner of the 2017 Choose Law Full Fee Scholarship which gave her a full scholarship to attend law school. She is currently an LLM candidate at George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School. She can be reached on LinkedIn.

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