‘I AM Not My Hair’
Unless your employer can provide a valid reason for asking you to tame your tresses, it’s race discrimination, according to top lawyers
Great and empowering lyrics from US singer India Arie, but have you heard of the woman who didn’t get a job, lost a job or failed to get a promotion because she wasn’t wearing a weave?
Black women in different sectors and professions are exposing several incidents at their respective workplaces where they are being told to disguise their natural hair and instead opt for weaves.
This requirement, it seems, has been made irrespective of the individual’s experience and skill in their job, their qualifications or general ability to meet their job description.
While employers can – and do – impose what are known as dress codes they should not discriminate against one particular group.
Dress codes extend from the wearing of jewellery, piercings and clothing through to hair style and length. These codes can either be explicitly set down in a staff handbook or may be off the cuff comments or suggestions about what an employer thinks is acceptable.
However, a ‘wear a weave’ dress code only really affects black women.
A requirement or suggestion that an employee should come to work with straight hair – essentially meaning ‘wear a weave’ or ‘don’t come to work with your natural tight curled hair’ amounts to a dress code – a discriminatory one!
It’s no secret that some black women choose to wear weaves, while some choose to wear their hair shorn short, plaited, in locks or in afro – so many options!
A ‘wear a weave’ dress code may be discriminatory in relation to black women who wish to wear their hair natural.
If you choose to wear your natural hair out, but are criticised by your employer for this or told to wear a weave when you don’t want to, you are essentially being treated less favourably than other colleagues who are not put in this position.
This is because the requirement to wear a weave is only going to be relevant to you and other employees who have African-Caribbean natural hair. It definitely isn’t going to apply to women whose natural hair is flowing and not tightly curled.
It is therefore possible to argue that an employer who requires employees to wear a weave or not turn up to work in an afro or other natural style is implementing a discriminatory dress code policy.
Kehinde Adeogun, an employment lawyer, says black women should arm themselves with a basic understanding of employment law to challenge such discriminatory practices.
“It is important to recognise that such policies can be challenged and that advice is available for black women who have experience of a ‘wear a weave’ or for example, ‘no afro’ or ‘no cornrows’ policy at work,” Adeogun said.
“Unless an employer can show that there is a justifiable reason for the ‘wear a weave’ to work dress code, the requirement for employees to comply could be held to be indirect race discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.”
She added: “The only relevant policy that an employer should be concentrating on is one’s ability to do the job in question; not whether an employee conforms to a particular westernised world view of what’s an appropriate hair style for women.”
Althea Brown, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, said the ‘wear a weave’ requirement “goes beyond applying a dress code”.
“In my view a requirement to wear a weave or present as less “ethnic” goes beyond applying a dress code,” Brown said. “This is a request to change or disguise something fundamental about who you are as a black woman and that may well amount to direct discrimination.
“We would like to gather evidence to see how widespread this issue is and to see what steps can be taken to support Black women at work.”