This article was written by Nicole Williams and edited by Farah Qaiser. 


These are some of the words that get associated with Black women’s hair.

The best feeling in the world is not caring about what anyone thinks. I wake up and uncoil my twists, spritz some water on them, and tie a colorful wrap on my head to match my outfit. But I didn’t always feel this way. For many Black women, the thought of wearing our natural hair in the workplace or in schools instills a sense of shame and fear.

Nicole Williams at a photo-op with the Founder of KINApparel, Philomina Kane

Every Black girl has a personal experience growing up that determines their hair journey. 

Mine was at the public swimming pool. 

I was, and still am a lover of books, and during the summer, I participated in my local library’s reading program. The reward for reading a certain number of books was a pool party. I remember sitting on the floor with my mother who had spent a few hours braiding my hair for the party. I walked in with neat cornrows, and hours later, left with a wild afro and a bruised ego. I could hear the other children around me, whispering and laughing. At that moment, I felt ashamed of my hair and unwelcome in that space. I hate to admit this, but I also remember looking on the ground for a hair band or scrunchie to tame my wild hair. I never wanted to go through that experience again; therefore:

As soon as my mother let me, at age 14, I asked to get a relaxer. I wanted nothing to do with my textured hair. I just wanted to fit in and be accepted.

Time and time again, Black women are overlooked, ignored, and underpaid in the science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine (STEMM) fields. We also deal with the policing of our bodies, our hair, our clothing, and our tone, as we enter spaces with oppressive and racist standards of professionalism. The way that we dress and wear our hair continues to be problematic. We are continuously singled out for not conforming to the “normal conservative dress norms”.

As I reflect on my own academic journey and early career as a marine scientist, there was no one that looked like me. I was the only African American woman in my class who graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology. In addition to this, I was the only Black woman in my Master’s of Marine Science cohort. I thought that if I looked like all of my white classmates who had straight hair, then I would be treated equally.

“When a Black woman chooses to straighten her hair, it should be a personal preference, not a burden to conform to a set of criteria for which there could be adverse consequences.”

Ashleigh Shelby Rosette: a management professor and a senior associate dean at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business


Photo by  Farrah Skeiky.

As the Director of Outreach at 500 Women Scientists, a global grassroots social justice organization, I want to call for more attention to be directed to speaking up about, and addressing, hair discrimination in the STEMM fields. In the United States, hair discrimination is defined as the “unjust social and economic treatment of historically underrepresented groups by the dominant white culture based on hair.”

October 2011 Hawaii Undersea Research Lab Cruise.

Black women are often told that having straight hair is beautiful; and that textured, natural, or curly hair is unprofessional or nappy. A 2019 study found that African American women suffer the most from hair discrimination in the U.S., and were 1.5 times more likely to be sent home from work. The study also found that 80% of African American women felt the need to straighten their hair in order to assimilate at work.

Hair discrimination also applies to the STEMM fields, which continue to have lower numbers of Black women. According to a 2018-2019 study by the American Institute of Physics, Black students in physics departments are likely to experience microaggressions on a daily basis, including questions around their appearance.

My hair is a part of who I am, it is my identity!


Here is a list of resources to help end hair discrimination, as well as additional sources illustrating the connection between hair and identity in the Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) culture.

  1. Sign the CROWN Act Petition
    • The CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) is one way that Black women are fighting hair bias in the United States. This law makes the denial of employment and educational opportunities due to hair texture and hair styles illegal. So far, the law has only been passed in 13 states. 
    • Use the #crownact hashtag to start the conversation in your personal circles, and keep the conversation going.
  2. Educate yourself on why hair is so special to different cultures, and how we can change the narrative!
  3. Keep talking about hair discrimination, and share your personal stories or lead efforts to illustrate how hair texture and style prevents many women of color from obtaining jobs or being accepted in STEMM fields. 
  4. Diverse representation matters. Young women of color need to be able to see themselves represented in books, TV shows, movies, etc.
  1. Support women of color businesses that promote healthy and/or natural hair.
    • KINApparel is a functional and inclusive clothing and accessory brand that promotes and highlights natural hair. All products (hoodies, jackets, hats, and pillowcases) are made with a satin lining to retain moisture and to protect your hair).
  1. Join and/or partner with 500 Women Scientists to speak out against oppressive societal norms. 
  2. Donate to initiatives, such as Fellowship for the Future.
    • This fellowship recognizes and amplifies the crucial role of women of color in STEMM. We consider this fellowship necessary for building environments where women from all backgrounds can thrive and be supported, so that our future is one where equity, inclusion, and social justice are integrated into our STEMM communities. 
Fellowship team and fellows from the January 2020 NYC launch weekend.

“Don’t remove the kinks from your hair! Remove them from your brain.”

Marcus Garvey

Nicole Williams is the Director of Outreach at 500 Women Scientists and the Co-Founder of the Black Women’s Collective.