Picture day at work can be an exciting time. Not only are you becoming an official part of the team and brand, it’s also another excuse to buy new clothes. The most exciting part, for me at least, is the chance to update my Linkedin profile. Unfortunately, picture day can also invoke a lot of unnecessary anxiety. Not because I am camera shy (just check my Instagram), but because while I think my natural hair is awesome, many others think that it is too… different. Nevermind that I have a stellar work ethic, or that I contribute to student success daily at the number one public university in the world. All these things don’t seem to matter once people see my natural hair. All of a sudden both my hair and I are labeled “unprofessional”.
The anxiety I experience does not only come up on picture day, it comes up as I am preparing for interviews, and manifests itself as I am styling my hair. While most women worry about what to wear, a large group of Black women and girls have been told outright that unless their hair is straight it is unprofessional, thus undesirable. Hence, I often styled my hair in a conservative way in an effort to limit interviewer bias. Renowned social psychologist Dr. Claude Steele refers to this as a stereotype threat: a situational predicament in which people are or feel themselves to be at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their social group.
For companies attempting to address ongoing concerns of stereotype threat and foster inclusion, it is crucial to unpack the term professionalism and consider how people of color and those who are gender nonconforming fit into that paradigm. Inclusion is no doubt a buzzword these days, but it is my hope that experiences like mine inform workplace change efforts. Team members do their best work when they are allowed to be their most authentic selves, and thoughtful companies are committed to creating work cultures that encourage it.
A version of this article originally appeared on Linkedin.com