Tobi Oredein | Contributing Writer | Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Do Women Of Colour Need To Be More ‘White’ To Secure Employment?

Do Women Of Colour Need To Be More ‘White’ To Secure Employment?

The Debrief: When applying for a job or building a career, it seems that women of colour are facing an increasing amount of pressure to negotiate their cultural identity in one way, shape or form

When filling out a job application, what is your biggest concern? Is it making sure you know the ins and outs of your perspective new workplace? Or maybe it’s making sure you sell yourself to your potential employer in a way that oozes the perfect amount of confidence, but without a hint of cockiness.

But what if your biggest concern was your name? What if you were me in 2008 and you phoned the magazine of your teenage dreams to confirm an internship and was told that your surname was too long to spell and too hard to pronounce? Like me, you may consider changing your name on your CV to sound more white. While I didn’t go down that route, some women of colour feel that they are left with no choice but to adopt a more anglican sounding alias on a job application, to increase their chances of an interview and ultimately employment.

A study by name blind head-hunting platform, showed that a quarter of non-white women have employed the name changing tactic, (pun intended) to increase their career opportunities. 

Biju Menon, founder of explained: 'Women go through a double bias - gender and ethnicity, so they feel more pressurised to adopt techniques which will bring them to the interview table. This was highlighted in our study that showed 78% of our female respondents felt that both their gender and ethnicity were barriers to employment, compared to 56% of male respondents who felt ethnicity is the problem. Companies are not willing to take the risk of changing their culture, which has been reaping rewards and it is very humane to resist change. Change will take time and the examples of role model organisations before ‘names’ are not a criteria for hiring.'

One woman who has seen positive results to changing her name is Nina Bobie Agyekum.  'When I graduated from my pharmacy degree, my dad told me to drop Agyekum, so that employers would think I’m white. At first I didn’t take his advice, but I had one interview from countless applications. So after the rejections, I decided to apply as Nina Bobie and test my dad’s theory. I’ve been offered countless pharmacy opportunities since my ‘name change. Many may say it’s playing the system. It’s not. It’s survival. It’s just what people of colour do, make our names sound as white as possible to get a foot in the door.'

Journalist Louise Mensah, didn’t even wait to test the theory, she started off her career as Lulu Daniels as she didn’t want to risk being bypassed for career opportunities.  'Many of my friends and family members changed their names to sound more British when applying for jobs. It was the norm and I didn’t want to miss out on internships and jobs because my name didn’t fit the bill. Now I write under Louise Mensah. I went back to my name, not because I had become more established. It was because I wanted to truly acknowledge who I was and that meant acknowledging my Ghanaian surname.'

While people of colour have made their names sound more anglican to get callbacks for applications for many years, up until recently, this had been a private conversation within ethnic communities. However, during a Conservative conference last year, David Cameron made the issue a public topic of conversation, when he stated: 'even with the same qualifications, candidates with white sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get callbacks for jobs than people with ethnic sounding names.' 

Following this speech, companies that include HSBC, the NHS and the BBC signed a pledge to end name discrimination, by asking applicants to use a code, rather than a name on applications to avoid the unconscious bias that often plagues people of colour in employment. Yet, the fact that in modern day Britain, the Prime Minister has to make a full blown speech to enforce such measures, only supports the argument that both people and in particular women of colour, have to dilute their ethnic identity in order to appear as attractive candidates to potential employers.

For black women specifically, needing to be more white to acquire a job, doesn’t just stop at adjusting names. Beauty standards placed on black women have proven that black womanhood is not wholly accepted within the working environment. In the last few years, more and more incidents of black women being told that their natural hair texture or any traditionally black hairstyle are unacceptable, has not only forced black women women to concede to European beauty standards, but in some extreme, but not rare cases, have forced black women out of jobs. 

*Lizzie Owusu felt she had no choice but to leave her post as an accounts executive for a public relations company, when her employers asked her to take out her box braids, in favour of a hairstyle deemed more in line with their  image. 'The incident happened on my very first day in the role. A member of management asked to have a private chat to discuss the office dress code and conduct. She requested that my hairstyles were more ‘simple. When I asked her to elaborate, she said that no one in the office wears braids; however, I was the only black person in my office. So of course no one would need to wear braids, they are a maintenance hairstyle for black women. At the end of the day, I decided it was best if I  resigned from my role. There is a stigma attached to black hairstyles and companies expect you to fit in offices that are for the majority white.' 

It seems that the pressure for black women to adopt more European hairstyles doesn’t just pertain the corporate sector. Even in retail, black women are forced to adhere to white beauty standards.  

23-year-old Damilola Mabadeje worked at Gilly Hicks, where she was told verbally and in her written contract about the acceptable way to look when working for the company.  'The written contract clearly condemned traditionally black hairstyles such as afros and cornrows. Additionally, I was told by management that my hair should be in line with more European looking styles and my natural hair texture should not be on show, unless it was chemically straightened,' explains Damilola. 

What is most intriguing is that in comparison, black men are often allowed to sport the natural texture of the hair. At a glance it seems odd that black men are allowed to wear their afros or even cornrows to most working environments, but after careful thought, the fact that only black women are only penalised and asked to shift their looks to the whiter side of beauty, only speaks to the inherent misogynoir, (a discrimination where racism and sexism meet, which specifically harms black women,) that seems to be prevalent in most facets of society. 

Furthermore, it proves why representation is extremely important. While the natural hair movement has started a powerful conversation in challenging beauty standards, we need to see more women of colour, more black women being allowed to break through the glass ceiling and not be forced to compromise their beauty standards in order to get there.

When women of colour do manage to break through employment barriers to achieve success, work colleagues can sometimes attribute this success to ‘acting white.’ For example, once on the phone at work, a colleague ‘complimented’ my telephone manner by saying I spoke like a ‘white person.’ To my knowledge, there is no such thing as speaking like a white person, but this comment is what is known as a microaggression: A form of passive aggressive racism that projects stereotypes and an unfair bias due to the colour of one’s skin. It also suggests that some white colleagues don’t believe in or associate career achievements with people who are not white. 

So when thinking if women of colour have to be seen as white in order to secure employment, the answer is no. Women of colour have to be seen as white to secure and maintain employment. We have to water down our ethnicity, in order to be given a chance at securing economic and career stability. Although it should be stated not all women of colour have needed to do this in order to attain success, what can’t be argued with is that when we do make changes that adheres to whiteness, the likelihood of career success inevitably increases. 

*please note that this indicates a name change for privacy reasons.

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Tags: Race