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Why Organisations Need To Stop Image Perception Being Valued Over Professional Capability

27/09/2017 15:29 BST | Updated 27/09/2017 15:29 BST

Eileen Carey, a female CEO of a successful Silicon Valley tech company, recently revealed that the secret to her business success was to dye her blonde hair brunette, and ditch the heels and contacts for androgynous clothes and glasses.

Sadly, this didn't come as much of a surprise to me. It did, however, get me thinking again about how much the opinion of others impacts our image, to the extent that we feel the need to change even the way we style our hair.

How often have you heard someone refer to a woman having a 'blonde moment'? Indeed, my own blonde-haired wife has used this phrase as an off-the-cuff way to excuse a mistake or mishap.

Yet men do not suffer the same prejudices around hair colour. Grey hair in a man, for example, is actually seen as a sign of experience and authority. When the phrase, "we could do with some grey hairs on this project" is exchanged around the office, you can be sure this is referring to a white, middle-aged male, not a woman.

A friend of mine, American psychologist and an expert on selection, Therese Macan, undertook some research into image/hair and its impact on interview decisions.

In short, the research revealed that to be taken seriously as a woman, you need to have brown, shoulder-length hair. Hair cut too short was deemed too masculine. Hair worn long was too feminine. Blonde too frivolous.

Attitudes to hair styles also reveal preconceived prejudices against women from ethnic minority backgrounds were even worse. An MBA student googled 'unprofessional hair styles and the images that came up were all of black women. Her tweet went viral and when others then googled 'professional hairstyles' the images were all of white women. In other words, braids are bad, but French pleats are pleasing. One straightforward request unwittingly revealed how women from visible minorities -in this case black women - are expected to conform by styling their hair in a certain way. It also shows how minority women are viewed, and how the bias they face is not necessarily the same as that encountered by white women.

It might seem shocking in an age of diversity and inclusion initiatives, that to get ahead in business, we still concern ourselves with something as trivial as our hair. However, this research data, as well as Eileen's story, give some insight into how such attitudes have been normalised, to the extent we accept that someone's professional capability is determined by the way they look.

Despite the best efforts of organisations to encourage gender and race parity, until we recognise the unconscious bias and internalised sexism that inform our attitudes and decision-making, we will struggle to tackle this issue. We also need to appreciate that the biases minority women face, are not always the same as those of white women. It's important for leaders and HR teams to lead by example and actively tackle the opinion that image is an acceptable way to judge a person's capabilities.

Professor Binna Kandola OBE is diversity and inclusion expert and author of two books: The Value of Difference and The Invention of Difference. For more information on Pearn Kandola visit www.pearnkandola.com