Kinky Curly Hair: Is Corporate America Ready?

African-American women make up roughly 8 percent of the U.S. workforce. Our representation in most senior executive leadership recently fell to under 1 percent: Ursula Burns is currently holding it down as the only African-American chief executive officer of the 500 largest companies in the United States. The numbers stink, so it’s no wonder that African-American women are concerned about both the written and unwritten rules to corporate success.

Straightened hair, hair thermally or chemically treated to change the texture from its natural kinky curly state, was once one of the unwritten rules of corporate advancement for African-American women. But is this still the case in 2012? We are in the pipeline, but still sorely underrepresented within the executive ranks. How much of this has to do with the way we look?

Behind closed doors, talent development leaders consult with me about how to embrace the diverse aesthetic and build a workforce that is a living expression of the company’s brand. For the most part, companies are very ready to promote African-American women who bring their authentic selves to work. It is also true that brand ambassadorship is nuanced: how talent looks can reinforce and undermine a company’s brand in a variety of ways that can seem complicated and confusing. African-American women get more than enough mixed messages about natural hair from the media, to perpetuate hair-insecurity in the best of us.

Most women have a bit of a love/hate relationship with their hair. The historical context for Black women in America makes the hair issue even more significant for many of us. When I consult with African-American women, there is always a conversation about the appropriateness and acceptability of their Natural hair for work. Clients of all ages and levels of leadership ask questions about the mixed messages they receive about showing up to work with the hair God gave them:

“I wear my hair natural in a variety of styles that work with my natural texture: braids, twists, buns and cornrows. Some seem to go over better than others at work. Are there certain hairstyles that are off limits?

Which hairstyles are “off-limits” is less dependent on the texture of our hair and more dependent on 1) how conservative/avant guarde our company culture is, and 2)whether or not there is a dominant mainstream impression of the style. For example,fair or not, many associate cornrows or scalp braids with beach vacations and pop culture.Hairstylesare a means of personal self-expression, and to be effective we must appreciate what we wish to communicate, and to whom we are “speaking”. Unless frequent change is considered an assetwithin the organization, then changing styles too often might just be a liability.

“Why do some universities implement dress policies that discourage people of color from wearing textured styles?”

Universities, particularly HBCUs, take pride in placement of their graduates and they are exceptional at placement. HBCUs typically encourage students to err on the side of conservative. The conversation that some schools are having with students is really about conservative hairstyles, verses non-conservative. Listen closely, the stringent dress and grooming guidelines do not suggest straight hair, only conservative hair.

“When I wear my hair curly, it draws too much attention. I’ve even had colleagues touch my hair without asking. How I wear my hair creates a Q&A session in which I’d prefer not to engage, so it seems keeping it straight is my only option.”

The issue here is change. Change inspires conversation and the perception of choice (“I like your hair this way or that way.”) The textural difference between straight and curly seems like a big, awesome change to someone whose hair could never do that. Shifting back and forth between curly and straight can be distracting in much the same way that it is distracting if a man is inconsistent with how he grooms his facial hair. Pick your horse and ride it, and in short time there will be no questions or conversations.

“Is a little Afro the only thing that works in conservative environments? My hair is long, so big, when I let the curls be free. What are my natural hair options in my very conservative law office?”

More hair equals less conservative, no matter what texture. Think of your face as a picture and your hair as a frame. The larger and more decorated the frame, the less conservative it seems. This does not mean that you have to wear your hair short. Your hair in a bun, or similarly styled braids, Senegalese twists and locs create a conservative finish.

“I’d love to come out of this wig! How do I mitigate the ignorant impression that wearing my hair in its organic texture is unkempt?”

When we honor ourselves by taking ample time daily to groom ourselves spiritually and physically, it is virtually impossible to express “unkempt.” Hair is fickle. No matter how you style it, it will be different as soon as the wind blows. Style your hair, but focus more attention on the more robust elements of your physical presence, like posture, gait, wardrobe and makeup. There is ignorance in the world and you may run into it from time to time. Give it no energy – you are wholly and perfectly made.

“I am looking for a new job. Should I straighten my hair for job interviews?”

If you question whether or not to straighten you hair, odds are there is some insecurity about wearing it curly. Show up to your interview feeling strong and powerful. If straightening your hair helps – so be it. Growing comfortable with our hair is easier when we feel safe: on weekends or vacations and in healthy employment situations where we know we are valued. Practice makes perfect. Let’s dream a world where we feel powerful showing up the way God made us, then make it so.

Is Corporate America ready for our Kinky curly hair? Yes. Does showing up “natural” limit our professional advancement? No.

There are real hurdles like too little sponsorship, lack of visibility and less than sufficient corporate commitment to creating a sustainable critical mass. It is time to uncover and eliminate these things.

What is a real advancement hurdle that African-American women face in Corporate America? What have you done to advance in spite of it?

Kali_Raoul

About Kali Patrice

Kali Patrice is the founder of The Image Studios, a Chicago-based firm that specializes in branding and image communication. She blogs through “Successful Expression” to share fresh ways to share insights about image, personal branding and self-expression.