Can Going Natural Really Affect Your Career?


by Dr. Phoenyx Austin

Let me ask a couple questions: Were you afraid of going natural because you were worried what your employer/coworkers would think? Are you thinking about going natural right now, but hesitate because you think it will negatively affect your career?

The issue of “natural hair is unprofessional” was something I also struggled with before doing my big chop. I remember my mother and friends telling me that if I planned on becoming a doctor, I would have to keep my hair relaxed to “look professional.”

Despite their good intentions, fortunately my mother and friends were wrong. My natural hair has never caused an issue with employment or questions of professionalism. And interestingly enough, since going natural I constantly get approached by professional black women that are also interested in transitioning to natural hair. They are often surprised that I’m a doctor and that my hair has never been an issue. And while giving my opinion and advice on going natural, I tell them to answer this one question as honestly as they can: Do you really think that your employer/coworker will have an issue, or is it just that YOU have an issue with natural hair.

I ask this question because I’ve noticed an interesting trend in the whole “natural hair is unprofessional” perspective. I’ve found many times that a black woman’s perceptions of how natural hair might be perceived are oftentimes not reality, but just a reflection and projection of her own insecurities. Moreover, when I went natural it was interesting to observe that the only criticisms of unprofessionalism that I received were from a handful of other black people— non-black people didn’t seem to care. And it’s all of these experiences that led me to have the strong opinion that whether fellow black people, or people of other races like it or not, this is our hair and they should get used to it. No one should feel forced to put a relaxer on their hair and scalp, just to be “accepted” or to make other people more comfortable.

It’s true that certain industries require a more conservative look. But I ultimately still encourage women to transition to natural if they really want to. Why? Because it is possible to have a conservative look with natural hair. People that claim natural hair is unprofessional are just uneducated on how to care for and/or style natural hair. Basically when it comes to hair, natural or relaxed, neatness and maintenance are key. And when it comes to professionalism, how you carry yourself is even more important than how you wear your hair.

Want to know more about Dr. Phoenyx Austin? Then show her some love on her Facebook fan page! Dr. Phoenyx is a physician, writer, & media personality- empowering women by providing fun and informative commentary that encourages us all to be free and be beautiful.

35 Weigh in!:
DiDi said...

I think white ppl and certain Black are uncomfortable with natural hair. It's bucks against the sheeple mentality. When I go on a job interview I make sure is neatly done. But I will bust out the afro with the flower in it once I got the job.

tavalava said...

"People that claim natural hair is unprofessional are just uneducated on how to care for and/or style natural hair."

Yes, Yes, and YES! I am currently transitioning, but I work in higher education and how you wear your hair (natural v. relaxed) never seems to be an issue as long as you are caring for it. If anything I feel like I see more naturals then relaxed individuals.

But I think that idea of being unprofessional had more to do of a fear of the unknown. Majority people seeing someone with hair who wasn't like theirs as well as women holding themselves back for fear of how they will be received.

This article and much of this blog focuses on natural haired women, but I wonder if men with locs would be seen as unprofessional because of hteir hair.

kitka82 said...

@tavalava:

I distinctly remember each of my two brothers cutting off their locks (about 15 years or so ago) in order to obtain "better" jobs. I think a lot has changed over the years. There seemed to be a stigma against men with locs--that they are all rastafarians or musicians or careless or something like that.

It's true though, as long as you carry yourself well, from head to toe--inside and out--it doesn't seem to be an issue. I went natural a few months after getting my current job, and I never felt that I would be viewed differently. But then, I make sure my hair and clothes look neat.

Naturally Nita said...

I agree with this author and many of her points echo my own experience. I'm honest enough to say that I was one of the uneducated black women who used to think that natural hair would prevent one from progressing in their career. Honestly, it was my own insecurity about my own natural hair. But after examining my own feeling/perceptions and making the decision to embrace my natural coils do I see how wrong I was. When I went natural, I received an abundance of compliments from my non-black co-workers and more just "looks" from my black co-workers. LOL. Payback is something else isn't it...

Nonetheless, I do agree with kitka82 that perceptions have changed over time and will continue to change as we continue to embrace our natural hair in its true form.

www.naturallynita.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with Dr. Phoenyx.

I think the views on natural hair and professionalism are definitely changing. Of the over thirty black women in my medical school class only ten have relaxed hair; five have locks; and the rest wear their hair in various states of naturally curly/kinky, pressed or weaved. No one has ever commented about the natural students looking unprofessional. A couple of weeks ago one of my professors mentioned how much the hair demographics have shifted since she sat in our seats.

I have been natural for ten years, in that time I have never had a white person tell me that they do not like my hair or that it is unprofessional. Several have actually said how much they love my hair. I am often asked: "How do you get you hair like that?"

LBell said...

"I’ve found many times that a black woman’s perceptions of how natural hair might be perceived are oftentimes not reality, but just a reflection and projection of her own insecurities. Moreover, when I went natural it was interesting to observe that the only criticisms of unprofessionalism that I received were from a handful of other black people— non-black people didn’t seem to care. And it’s all of these experiences that led me to have the strong opinion that whether fellow black people, or people of other races like it or not, this is our hair and they should get used to it. No one should feel forced to put a relaxer on their hair and scalp, just to be “accepted” or to make other people more comfortable."

I could not agree more with this!

My last 9 years in corporate America were spent as a NAPPY natural and I NEVER EVER had an issue because I refused to make it an issue AND I didn't let anybody else make it an issue.

And I'll say this also one more time: Not every natural hairstyle is appropriate for every job but that doesn't mean you can't find one that is. There's no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Black women need to quit apologizing for not looking like everybody else. If you really truly believe deep down that your hair texture is just as good as anyone else's then you will be perfectly FINE no matter where you go or what you do.

Anonymous said...

As has been mentioned here many many times, yes you can have a sucsessful career as a natural. But you need to be mindful of how you style your hair and the field that you are in.
At my organization one could not succeed wearing braids and twists. A research assistant or intern could wear these styles, but not a Director on my floor. I keep my hair very simple, a loose bun, or a rollerset updo 99% of the time. My career has proceeded just nicely. I work with several women at other organizations at similar professional levels with TWAs. But no one is wearing a twist out or cornrows. That wouldn't cut it.

Anonymous said...

And might I add, people should not assume that since they have not been told to their face something about their hair, that it could not be a barrier/ or it has not been discussed in other quarters. I have unfortunately been in an interview debrief where everyone liked the candidate but someone asked how would our partners "receive" this person's dreadlocks. While we did ultimately hire the person, this persons hair "professional appearance" was discussed for 10 minutes.

Anonymous said...

Ultimately professionalism echoes on how you carry yourself. I'm in my last year of medical school and was also afraid to don my TWA this past year; however, I knew that I was never going to be able to spend countless hours in the beauty salon getting braids to cover what I perceived as unprofessional. I wore my TWA and my black suit all over the east coast interviewing for residency, and not once did I feel uncomfortable or unprofessional. I'm entering the residency of my choice because of my credentials and my character... not my hair.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Phoenyx Austin is a beautiful lady and her hair is absolutely gorgeous. Her style seems very professional to me. She is rocking natural!

Anonymous said...

Honestly... I don't think white people are that concerned with black people's hair as long as it's neat and clean. You wouldn't expect a person with a 10ft mohawk to fit in a professional setting because that's not neat or clean. My mother rocks a TWA in her corporate job and has been doing so for at least 10 years. As someone who is transitioning I've noticed especially that natural is becoming more mainstream.

Look at the commercials with black people in them these days. 9 times out of 10 the woman is going to have natural hair. I've seen this in McDonald's commercials, diaper commercials, yogurt commercials, you name it. I think that says something about the way natural hair is viewed. IT'S JUST HAIR. And nobody really cares.

Dani @ OK, Dani said...

I think it's the neatness factor that counts. Neat hair is professional hair, and neat hair wont negatively affect your career. I have been working in nyc financial firms and have natural hair that I will wear in buns, twists, wash n gos and various updos. I have never had a problem that was hair-based.

kitka82 said...

Hmmm... a mohawk can definitely be clean on freshly washed hair, and neatly cut. However, I have never thought of that style as "professional." But I'm not sure why...

Jeannette said...

When I first became natural, I had a bit of a struggle with my hair and it's professionalism. Then I realized that it's not the other people around me, it's how I feel about myself. I learned to love and embrace myself and that when I do a job to give my ALL. My 'Girlie' doctor has natural hair and many people in my community have natural hair. It was just me and YES, natural hair is professional. We can style natural hair like any other. After all these years, my being natural and professional has never been an issue.

AishaSaidIt said...

I am a professional working in an professional environment and I have never ever had a problem with my hair. The company I work for is global so that means various ethnicities, religions, and yes hair styles. Most global companies make every effort to avoid blatant discrimination in the workplace. So it seems kind of silly to interrupt a work day to discuss hair. I have been told by other Black women, I don’t work with, about the "oppression" in the work place but none of them could give specifics and or even say it happened to them personally. In my opinion this is an unfortunate rumor. There are so many real struggles in the world, who has time for made up ones?

KeetaRay said...

OMG I couldn't agree more with this article. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

people kill me with the "well ___ had to cut HIS dread locs." Men are not seen as professional with long hair in general. White or black, curly or straight, kinky or loced. It is not that natural hair is unprofessional. Have a white man with hair all down his back go apply for a job and it'll be the same thing. However people may be more comfortable asking himm to cut it for the job then a man with locs.

Anonymous said...

I think that a lot of this has to do with the people you are around and the job you may have. I personally had a hard time getting others to understand why I was hesitant for my BC. I am currently in the military so I have to keep my hair within certain regulations when I am in uniform. There are many that say just get a sew-in or braids...but I have never been one to do a lot of braids and I have never had any other form of weave other than the occasional drawstring ponytail, yes it’s true as hard as that may be to believe. I have had braids but I just didn't want to deal with them or the price. In the end I finally BC'd and used wigs until I was comfortable with the length and knew what I was doing. It was just important to me to maintain the professional look while I was in uniform. Since then I have had numerous people, usually Caucasian, tell me that they think it looks better straight or they like the wigs better. I had one even tell me that the wigs just look "fancier". Black women, minus a very select few (namely 1, my previous hairdresser) have been my main source of support. But things like that I have learned to ignore, and I am going to continue to rock my curls until they are out of regs and I then and only then will I resort to some other method.

Anonymous said...

Most of the people on this site are natural, they arent going to say its unprofessional. This isnt at all an accurate representation of ideas/experiences.

AishaSaidIt said...

"Most of the people on this site are natural, they arent going to say its unprofessional. This isnt at all an accurate representation of ideas/experiences." --Anonymous (April 5, 2011 1:57 PM)

It doesn't matter. Until there are specific stories with more facts than hear say, where is the problem? Someone can say something happened but until you hear the whole story how do you go about suggesting a solution? I can't say yes there is a discriminatory action against people with kinky hair because of assumptions. What did the hair look like? Where did they work? What was said? So on and so on... I need of few of these answered before I am convinced there is a problem. Otherwise say what you know, and all I know is…

Since my first position in 1997 until now, I have not had a problem.

Pamela said...

I couldn't agree more with this article! Particularly the part about neatness and maintenance being the key to hair in the workplace, whether it's natural or not. A neat, professional style is desired in most workplace environments, whether the hair is natural or not. You can be a natural and wear your hair professionally without compromising your hair's natural texture. I know...I do it EVERYDAY!

Anonymous said...

AishaSaidIt-it does matter, because it gives people a skewed perception. And as mentioned above, just because you haven't been directly told your hair was not professional etc. doesn't mean you haven't been judged or experienced discrimination because of it. Employers are savvy about not making overt discriminatory acts, and covertly practice discrimination in a number of ways. They all know they cant tell a black woman about her hair b/c it could slide into racial discrimination claims, but best believe they still find ways to do it. (i.e. the black woman I used to work with who had locs was never sent to high level meetings to represent us despite being a very capable and good researcher.) It was talked around, but they did not want her to be the "face" of the org. Look, Im natural and have been for my entire life, including professional career, graduate school, college. I dont believe anyone should be discriminated against for wearing their God given hair. But I think we are kidding ourselves if we think its not happening.

Anonymous said...

Funny, I'm in a company and industry that has very few black people, yet many of the "faces" that are used around here are black women with natural hair. So for example, I log into meetings, and the women whose face is seen by tens of thousands of people is a black woman with an afro.
Anyone who looks "different" in any way might sometimes be judged because of it, but the point of many posters (myself included) is that a little whispering by a handful of (and let's face it probably black people) does not damage your career.
At this point, I know more doctors, lawyers, MBAs (including myself) who work in areas where black faces are few and far between, and we all move up and around without a problem.
Look, you will be discriminated against for being a woman, for being black, for being too ugly, for being too pretty, and the list can go on and on. Nothing about you is going to be acceptable to everyone, so to act as if hair adds some extra layer of discrimination is silly. If you are visibly black, that's the main hurdle you need to overcome, and that will be the one that you have to overcome to move up. It's clearly only anecdotal but I feel that the love that I've always had for my hair comes precisely because I didn't grow up around a lot of black people, and b/c I don't work with/for any black people(and in my industry, likely never will), I only hear either silence (which really should be the default for what people say about you if you are clean and neat) or get praise for my big natural hair.
What I have always been judged for is having stellar academic credentials, an excellent resume, and always getting my job done exceptionally wear. What is going on with my hair matters very little when balanced against all of that.
And even though it is anecdotal and confirmation bias to boot, all of the stories I've heard or witnessed regarding black women and hair involve comments from other black people, and not people who hired them. Now if you want to make a case that my friends would be CEOs now if they had relaxed hair, go right ahead. If you view things that way, then I guess you CAN claim that our hair holds us back, but if that is the case, then why aren't more straight-haired Asians running things in corporate America?

Anonymous said...

Great, everyone agrees this is issue is a non issue. So why dont all the natural hair sites stop talking about it. (Im not saying this in a snide way).

Anonymous said...

Personally, I don't think that natural hair is unprofessional, but I also prefer to wear my hair in a modest styles due to the career I have chosen. I love the fact that there is a movement to be more expressive through our hair, but I also realize that I don't wear diva style makeup and show off my tattoos at work.
The fact of the matter is first appearances do count and it helps to put your best foot forward. In this competitive market and the current economy, I just think it is best to wear your hair in professional styles as a natural at work and interviews. I'll go one step further, I think everyone no matter race, creed, color, texture of hair, or religion needs to develop a level of professionalism at work. This is just my personal opinion and I feel like we are not preparing our youth for the real world if we don't.

MommieDearest said...

To anyone who is convinced that natural hair will hold black women back in the corporate workplace, I have 2 words: Ursula Burns.

That is all.

Anonymous said...

Ursula Burns looks conservative, which is important. She isn't rocking a twist out with a headbands or flower. She's natural, and knows how to package it for corporate life. That's the key.

Anonymous said...

It may be a good idea to orient us newly natural or transitioning gals as to what constitutes a ‘professional’ style that is acceptable for work in a corporate environment (i.e. banking, higher education, law, etc). Perhaps, a photo board of acceptable natural styles to wear in the workplace would suffice?

Anonymous said...

@ Curly Nikki: Can you interview Dr. Austin? I'd like to know how long has she been natural, her hair routine and products she uses.

Thanks

Anonymous said...

Awesome point of view! Thanks Dr. Austin and CurlyNikki!

Nichole said...

I'm with DiDi... I think most white people feel uncomfortable with blk people and especially when black women decided to go natural. I think the opinion of natural hair is not always based on the company, but the people that work there. I'm an research student in the division of cancer research and the first day I decided to wear my hair in a curly afro the response that i got were "what happen to your hair". the look of natural hair is started to appear in more commerials and on tv shows. hopefully this will get people or all races and ethnicity to understand that we just want healthy hair.

MsAkira said...

In all honestly, I was very concerned about how I would be perceived when I became natural. As a young women in the social service field, I am often working with guardians who are significantly older than me with high expectations of how I am suppose to be as a "professional". So, I was and still am very concerned about being judge as incompetent or unprofessional based simply on my hair. So I truly do struggle with learning and maintaining hairstyles that are neat clean while still learning my hair and what products will work for me. At this point, product choice makes the difference between a cute curl with a decorative headband or an tangled web strapped down.

Anonymous said...

i am white and i have very very thick curly hair. for a long time i didnt think i could wair my hair natural and get a job, or get laid for that matter. Well, I can get a job just fine, and I get laid more than ever. Beauty standards are just that - generic standards made for paper dolls. Real people have real hair - your hair wont look as nice as someone with naturally straight hair anyway - so you might as well embrace your own beauty.

Anonymous said...

Although I wanted to go natural for many years, I didn't for a number of reasons: would my boss find a way to fire me if I did, would I know what to do with it when it was shorter and not straightened, what would my family think, what would my husband (who happens to be white) say, etc. When he came home after I did my own big chop in the bathroom mirror, at first he was surprised by the shortness of it. But he much preferred the texture to the length. His hands are always in it (as were mine in the beginning) because, as he says, it's so soft and fluffy. When I asked if he liked my hair better straight or curly, he said "Definitely curly. I never knew why you relaxed it anyway. It looks so much prettier now". I was floored. In my mind, the straight look WAS the better look. What a fool...

So what have I learned? That I LOVE LOVE LOVE my natural curls. I will never go back to destroying my hair with chemicals and heat just because some advertiser says it should be long, blonde and straight. My biggest fear was getting fired but I've since come to realize that my boss will never fire me because without my skills, he would lose HIS job. And if you're afraid to go natural for that reason, just remember - if your boss fires you because your hair is suddenly curly, he was gonna do it for some other reason anyway.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous on April 7th said - "your hair wont look as nice as someone with naturally straight hair anyway - so you might as well embrace your own beauty."

Are you kidding? My big curly kinky hair is SO MUCH more interesting and beautiful than any boring bland straight look. Whenever I see straight hair I think - that poor thing...her hair is so lifeless. Anyone who's crazy enough to kill their precious locks with hot, searing curling irons or melt them away with chemicals used for unclogging drains deserves the mess that they'll eventually end up with.

Don't say "you might as well" embrace your own beauty. That sounds like you're grudgingly accepting second place when you're way out in front. Change your attitude girl.

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