Female engineer whose photo went viral speaks out about the unconscious bias impacting what “professional” means.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
What happens when a photo of you under the headline “unprofessional hairstyles” goes viral?
That’s just what happened to Jereshia Hawk last month with a story about how racially skewed random Google searches for professional and unprofessional hairstyles could be.
The image below showed up on many websites, including DiversityInc Best Practices in May under the headline “Black Hair = Unprofessional/White Hair = Professional.”
You can see Hawk in the red circle:
With the juxtaposition of the photos, DiversityInc Best Practices was pointing out how far society still has to go when it comes to accepting diverse hairstyles in the workplace — and the intense feedback on social media concurred.
But too often, stories like this are unable to get to the personal stories behind the images.
That is, until now. Hawk saw the photo on DiversityInc Best Practices and decided to reach out with this email:
I noticed the last article shown below, RACE & IMAGE: Black Hairstyles = Unprofessional?, and realized that a woman in the picture was me.
Hawk may actually be the opposite of unprofessional. She’s a successful transmission pipeline engineer working for Consumers Energy, a public utility based in Jackson, Michigan.
Here’s a video the company did showcasing Hawk:
DiversityInc Best Practices reached out to Hawk, and she said the photo was taken four years ago when she was an intern at Consumers Energy. She wasn’t sure how it ended up becoming a top search on Google for unprofessional hair, but it clearly got her thinking.
“I hated my curls when I was a kid,” she recalled. “I grew up in a predominately white neighborhood and it took me a while to embrace my hair.”
Now she wants to empower other women to do the same.
The whole natural hair debate for Black women, she said, is a big issue right now. “I’ve talked to many of my Black female mentors, and some rock their natural hair, but not during interviews. We make our hair straight to get the job, but once [we’re] in the corporate environment we let our hair loose.”
She’s hoping society gets to the point where diverse appearances are showcased, not shunned, in corporate environments.
The photo started circulating through her company, and it sparked some self-reflection among employees.
“When I first looked at the article, I was shocked and appalled,” noted Angela Thompkins, manager of talent acquisition, diversity & inclusion at Consumers Energy.
“However, I paused and had to look in the mirror — literally,” she explained. “I have dreadlocks but no one would know it because I wear wigs to work. Why do I wear wigs you might ask? It’s not because I’m afraid that my company won’t accept me or because I don’t think I can climb the corporate ladder, like the article suggests, with my dreadlocks. I wear a wig because it’s a part of my professional ‘brand.’”
It’s exactly these kinds of conversations that Hawk believes we need in order to recognize how we feel about ourselves and to recognize our own biases. “We all have unconscious biases, and if we understand that, we empower individuals who may look different,” she stressed.
Consumers Energy’s leadership understands how important embracing diversity is if you want a high performing organization.
“Part of having a highly engaged and productive team is creating an environment where everyone can bring their full self to work,” said Holly Bowers, executive director of Geospatial and Gas Asset Management at Consumers Energy. “Business leaders need to recognize their unconscious bias and accept that everyone is unique, including hairstyles. Judging individuals on assumptions will hinder getting to truly know a person’s character and quality.”
Indeed, she added, “Jereshia is one of the most dynamic and professional engineers in the gas industry. She brings enthusiasm, ideas, and skills that enable us to meet the energy needs of our customers.”