Sociology Major Explores Discrimination of Women of Color in the Workplace Based on Hair Style

Posted on 4/4/2017 2:55:37 PM

Rebecca Colon presents at Undergraduate Scholars ForumOf all the things that make it more difficult for a woman of color to land a good job, IUP senior Rebecca Colon has spent the last two years studying one aspect that might go somewhat unnoticed.

“The actual issue is race,” she said, “but they’re using hair as the barrier. They’ll say, ‘you may be qualified for this job, but your hair does not meet our grooming policies.’”

Colon, a sociology major and native of Philadelphia, presented her research project, “Discrimination of Women of Color: Hair Perceptions,” on April 4 during a session at the annual Undergraduate Scholars Forum at the Hadley Union Building. Her faculty sponsor for the research project is Victor Garcia, Distinguished University Professor and faculty member in the Department of Anthropology.

Colon’s presentation was one of more than 150 during the twelfth annual, one-day event, which allows IUP undergraduate students to present original research in a wide array of subjects. Additionally, there were nearly 100 undergraduate students participating in the poster presentation session.

The graduate forum will be held April 5, also at the HUB. A total of 300 students are involved in the two programs, held as part of Research Appreciation Week at IUP.

Colon started off her 15-minute presentation by showing slides of two Google Image searches. One featured mostly Caucasian women with short, straight hair. The second had photos of mostly African-American women with curly hair.

She asked the attendees if they could guess what specific terms she searched for to find the photos. The answer: the one on the left was the results of a search for “professional hair;” the one on the right was “unprofessional hair.”

“I don’t want to be viewed as unprofessional when I’m looking for a job,” she said. “But this is alarming.”

Colon went on to show that in her research, she found that many corporations didn’t spell out directly that they had policies against women with what she called “curly and kinky” hair, but there were often implied rules that prospective women had to abide by in order to keep their jobs.

“(This research showed) how corporations can use grooming policies to keep minority women out of the work force,” she said.

Colon created two focus groups on campus to discuss the issue and its resolution. Each group led her to a different conclusion.

The first group was a mix of Caucasian and African-American females, and the general consensus was that this was a problem that they felt remorse about, but didn’t know how to fix. The second group was entirely African-American, and those in the group accepted hair perceptions as just another obstacle to overcome.

“Members of the mixed group they felt like there was an issue,” Colon said. “They wanted to help the African-American community. But when we talked about hair styles, the women with straight hair actually wanted their hair to be curly because they wanted to look more professional. It was kind of a backward shift. They felt bad and wanted to empower people. Then in the African-American group, the women were tired of complying with societal norms. They’d say, ‘If I’m qualified, then the heck with it. If there’s an issue, I’m going to let it be known.’ They felt like they were able to get through to people.”

Colon, who will graduate in May, is in the process of writing her final research paper on the topic, under Garcia’s guidance.

“I’m really looking forward to publishing this paper,” she said.