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Bad hair day: No reason your coiffure should interfere with your career

I was hoping I wouldn't have to face that much discrimination while searching for jobs. Thanks to the women's liberation movement, I have a fair chance of not being discriminated against based on my gender. In light of the civil rights movement, race, theoretically, should not be an issue. And with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement well underway, I was expecting that my sexual orientation would be irrelevant to any job I was looking for. Great, I think to myself, no problem. But it looks like I forgot one thing. Hair.

Since a couple of friends sat down and knotted my hair into the beginnings of dreadlocks just under two years ago, I've had a number of opportunities to talk to people about their experiences with dreadlocks. I often get people looking at my hair wistfully and saying, "I used to have dreadlocks. But I had to cut them off for my job." Random people on New York subways and strangers in the streets will tell me their stories. We compare dreadlocks — if they still have them. As a student I have not had to worry about getting fired from any part-time job I have had. Students are supposed to be a little kooky, right? But now that I'm a senior and going out into the big world, hair has become an issue for me as well.


A few weeks ago, I applied for a position with the Green Corps, and at the end of the interview my interviewer asked me if I would be willing to cut my hair for the job. I was slightly taken aback — how would my hair affect my performance in environmental advocacy or any other job? I asked her why she thought it would be necessary, and she said many people think environmentalists are "dirty hippies," and to contradict this view the Green Corps likes to portray a very "professional" appearance. That way, people can take you more seriously, she explained. I asked my interviewer how such stereotypes would end if people were not willing to consciously reject them. The next day, I received an e-mail saying thank you very much for applying but "no thanks."

Hair is a personal thing. It's a part of a person's body. Often the way it's managed has religious, spiritual or personal significance. For example, many Rastafarians make a vow not to cut or comb their hair. It's not like a work uniform that you can put on and take off at the end of the day. It's taken me two years for my hair to become what it is today. Dreadlocks take time. People I've run into have had dreadlocks for as many as nine or 13 years — that's commitment. If and when I cut mine off, it will be my own decision. I do not think it should be influenced by what future employers think is the most "appropriate," "normal," "pretty" or "acceptable" style for me.

People hiring other people for jobs should not discriminate based on whether that person has dreadlocks, or, for that matter, on any other aspect of that person's body (such as body piercings or tattoos). Though this form of discrimination is no different from any other kind of prejudice and should not be normalized or accepted, it often is. For example, in the April 4 science section of The New York Times, a journalist wrote about body piercings, presumably for young people thinking about getting a piercing: "Think about your future. How will adults who interview you for school admission or jobs react when they see your piercings?" Piercings, race, class, sexual orientation, disability, dreadlocks, whatever — it is still discrimination.

Expecting people to cut their hair for a job is like expecting them to give up a part of themselves. I would urge you all, when and if you are hiring someone in the future, to remember that whether they cut their hair is not going to make a difference in their job performance. True, prejudiced people may hold your organization in lower esteem if you hire people with dreadlocks. But think hard about the values that you want your organization to promote. The only way things are going to change for the better is if people act on values — not hair-dos. Catherine Archibald is an ecology and evolutionary biology from New Rochelle, N.Y. She can be reached at