The Costly ‘Grooming Gap’ Has Always Disproportionately Impacted Black Women

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If you’ve found yourself adhering to the unspoken rule that women should appear a certain way in the workplace, you’re not alone.

The double standard, which stresses that women should “look the part”—wearing “neatly-styled” hair, perfectly manicured nails and makeup, and donning appealing clothes and accessories—leaves men virtually untouched and women who align with it in a favorable position. According to a study conducted by sociologists Andrew Penner and Jaclyn Wong from the University of California and University of Chicago, respectively, grooming matters more than attractiveness when it comes to gaining a higher income. While men are expected to follow grooming guidelines (to a certain degree), white, male privilege and social norms mean it’s not as elaborate or costly. This set of norms, known as the Grooming Gap, cost women thousands of dollars a year. But the cost is beyond financial when race comes into play, placing Black women at the greatest disadvantage with regard to career advancement.

Minda Harts, founder and CEO of career-development company for women of color, The Memo LLC, says that the grooming gap is an extension of racism and respectability politics. “Black women have been policed by the majority group since the beginning of time; from the way we wear our hair down to our nail polish,” says Harts. “It's interesting to me that we talk so much about bringing one's authentic self to work, yet, Black women and marginalized groups always have to make the hard choice of whose version of authenticity should we bring, because history has shown us our version isn't always welcome.”

“It's interesting to me that we talk so much about bringing one's authentic self to work, yet, Black women and marginalized groups always have to make the hard choice of whose version of authenticity should we bring" —Minda Harts

In her book, by the same name, The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table, Harts breaks down the unique challenges women of color face in professional settings and provides tangible strategies to successfully navigate their career. Having handled nearly two decades in corporate America, the author has dealt with bias and discrimination. Early in Harts’ career, for example, she wore burnt orange nail polish to which her boss, a white man, remarked, "Black people love bright colors." He didn’t stop there, making fun of her nails with another white male colleague and reiterating his discriminatory statement.

“From that moment forward I was highly sensitive to what I wore in the office and not to be too 'Black,'” says Harts, who stopped wearing bright nail polish to work. “I was the only Black woman consultant and for the next 15 years, I was never able to bring my authentic self to work—or so I thought.”

For Ayanna Dutton, who has “had every color you can think of” on her hair and worn various styles in corporate spaces, it’s important to bring her full self to work, but admits it comes with the added layer of educating her counterparts. Though she flips every question she gets into a teachable moment, the marketing consultant and entrepreneur isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers.

“Even though my suit may be loud because maybe I'm wearing a red suit with my pink and purple hair, I can still look fabulous and polished, and still look like I'm a boss at the same time,” says Dutton, co-founder of Non-Corporate Girls, a podcast for unconventional women maneuvering the corporate world. “That’s the kind of lens I've taken in corporate spaces. This is how I present myself.”

In 2017, Black consumers reportedly spent $1.1 billion on beauty annually, which breaks down to $473 million in total hair care, $127 million on grooming aids, and $465 million on skin care. Despite the wage disparity, this is nine times more than their counterparts.

In addition to the money women shell out to maintain their appearance, the grooming gap notes that women also lose out on free time, spending roughly 55 minutes per day on hair and makeup. Dutton wakes up 30 to 45 minutes early to account for hair and makeup prep before heading out the door, and uses approximately 10 products total. However, the exact number of hair products depends on whether she’s rocking a wig, or another protective style, or her natural hair.

While the second wave of the natural hair movement ushered in greater acceptance and products for textured hair, data shows that doesn’t fully translate to the workplace. Black women are 80 percent more likely to change their hair to meet expectations at work, according to a study conducted by Dove.

Black women are 80 percent more likely to change their hair to meet expectations at work

Attorney, writer, and founder of Culture by Karen, Karen Francis transitioned from straightening her hair regularly to wearing her natural hair and received many cringe-worthy, unsolicited comments about her appearance. When straightened, Francis’ hair has been described as “polished” and even mentioned it’s preferred over her naturally curly texture.

“I had somebody say, I like your hair so much like this, but I guess it's probably too much work for you to blow dry it every morning,” says Francis. “Is that what it is? Like it was some sort of pity that I wasn't doing this every day.”

Similar to Dutton, Francis speaks to colleagues about the magnitude of their comments. “I've told several colleagues, I really appreciate that you like my hair like this; thank you,” she says. “But from my perspective, I spent so much of my life not even knowing what my curls looked like and so I'm much more into my curls because of what that means to me.”

While the existing gap has silenced many Black women, Harts agrees on the importance of accountability. “We must lean into our courage and have critical conversations with those who are perpetuating these standards,” she says. “Additionally, it’s important that our allies and leadership understand how they play a role in perpetuating harm in the workplace—intentional or not—and be willing to be courageous listeners.”

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