A career counselor is hard pressed to have a counseling relationship with a woman without discussing appearance. Our relationship with image in the workplace is a touchy one at best. We are urged to watch the length of our skirts so that we don’t assume the image of office skank, watch the padding in our jackets so that we don’t look too manly and the amount of makeup, perfume and accessories that we wear so that we do not become a distraction. I cannot tell you the last time I had a male client inform me that his supervisor said that he was dressing too sexy on the job and people are starting to talk, but I have had that come up on multiple occasions with my female clients.
In addition to our clothing and accessories there is this issue of hair, especially for women of color who already deal with cultural issues that surround and impact our hair choices. My job seekers often say to me, “I am in search of a job, what should I do with my hair?” Honestly the question used to catch me off guard. I get it now. I’ve read enough articles about braids, weaves, wigs and natural hair in the workplace to understand why in a time where jobs are scarce, women are scared.
Discrimination in the workplace due to hair is as real as discrimination due to race, age and gender. It saddens me that women of color can be passed over for jobs, promotions and other advancement opportunities based on our hair choices. I know that black women have been prohibited from wearing braids, locs or even their natural hair on the job. It upsets me that in 2012 I’m still being asked by my clients to help them navigate hair on the job, but I am. When exploring the idea of hair in the workplace I lean heavily on my training in feminist counseling theory and tend to focus on three concepts; power, culture and image.
A perceived lack of power is at the root of the majority of the issues that encourage clients to seek career counseling. Powerlessness over their job search, unable to join the good old boys clubs where career moves are made, partners who are primary bread winners and therefore decision makers…So imagine how hurtful and depriving it is when a client feels like a part of them, an extension of their very essence must be changed in order to feed their families.
For many black women our hair is a huge part of our identity. I can remember being told that my crown is my glory, referring to the fact that I must wear my hair nice and neat at all times, but “nice and neat” is relative and lack of knowledge and exposure to African-American culture can influence how a woman’s hair is received in the work world. Hairstyles that can only be worn by black women are often times viewed as unprofessional. Afros, dreadlocs and braids are examples of hairstyles that celebrate African-American culture, but are often shunned by corporate America.
When a client introduces her hair as an object that is stunting her professional growth or hindering her mobility it is important not to offer the simple fix of changing her hair. Helping a woman navigate the role that her hair plays in the power differential is extremely important according to Feminist Counseling Theory and vital for any counselor that wants to take into account multicultural sensitivities.
The culture of the organization will greatly impact a woman’s ability to show up in her professional space. If the culture is rigid, conformist or lacks diversity it may be more difficult for a woman to confidently rely on her credentials for entry or upward mobility. I find it helpful to discuss how culture may be influencing a female client that is experiencing job dissatisfaction and to examine cultural implications of environments the client may consider entering.
If my client tells me that she is experiencing discrimination on the job due to her appearance, I try not to fall into the trap of attempting to decide whether her thoughts are valid or not. Her perception is her reality. Once we have examined any real or perceived culturally based issues. We work together to empower her to navigate the environment from a position of power. She has choices and options that go far beyond deciding whether or not to change her hair.
The idea of professional image can be extremely daunting for a client who is dealing with the types of concerns that bring women into my office. A woman who is suddenly forced into a job search due to a layoff often presents as depressed, insecure and/or anxious. I believe it’s always important to explore a client’s beliefs about her image. I find it helpful to explore how she sees herself and how she believes others view her.
A woman’s image concepts can be reframed and examined as strength when she is equipped to take ownership of what she communicates through her hair, clothes and other accessories. In my work with clients who are dissatisfied with their situation I attempt to help them see their current jobs as a production or a play in which she is an actress. There are costumes and props and in castings there are looks. I might ask a client if she were casting for her role in a play about her job, what would her character look like and why? How can we use her characters image to make her appear powerful? The answers vary greatly based on the culture of the company or organization.
If done right, career counseling is personal counseling and few things are as personal to a woman as her image!
Andrea Holyfield is a counselor specializing in career counseling and womens’ empowerment. For more information go to http://www.LiveWellCPS.com