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Is Long Hair Unprofessional?

I'm not alone in wondering whether chopping your hair off is a prerequisite for a woman's success. From politicians like Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Dole, and Nancy Pelosi to well-known litigators like Jamie Gorelich, Sheila Birnbaum, Amy Schulman, and Maureen Mahoney, short hair is the status quo. Does it have to be that way?

I like my long hair. I've always received compliments on it; I like having the option to curl it or straighten it or put it up; and, I admit it, my long hair makes me feel feminine and attractive. But, is it holding me back?

Susan Ehrlich Martin and Nancy Jurik wrote an interesting book, Doing Justice, Doing Gender, and a whole chapter is devoted to women in the legal profession. The authors note that "by controlling the professional context, men behave in ways that show that other men are taken seriously and accorded respect. Conversely, the way men talk about women and their appearance treats women as invisible, devalues them, and affects their ability to perform effectively." If this is true, then does it make sense that women might try to "blend in" by wearing pants suits and cutting off their hair? Martin and Jurik give the example that if "a judge allows the opposing attorney to label a woman attorney’s appearance a 'distraction,' it signals to others that it is acceptable to use a woman’s looks as the basis for objecting against other women attorneys." So, do successful women attorneys instinctively know that the way to get ahead is to detract from their appearance and is short hair part of that?

 

 

12 Comments

veronica

When I first arrived in the US I met with a recruiter who told me to cut my hair prior to interview.
She had the Aniston-style 'do and she thought that was the longest it could be. I have always had long hair but I always put it up at work (french twist, bun, professional-plain claw clip). I asked her if it looked unprofessional as it was and she said "no, but it just isn't done, you'll fit in better if you cut it.". I didn't cut it and I got a top tier job.
I actually think its the women who judge you by your hair. I really doubt that the 3 middle aged male partners who interviewed me ever noticed how it was done. It was pulled back neatly in a claw clip at the interview.
My hair is naturally oily at the roots and dry at the tips. If I  didn't put it up by the end of the day it would look limp and greasy with frizzy ends despite daily washing. By putting it up it stays in the same "just done" neatness all day and into the long nights. Pressuring me to cut my hair would be forcing me to adopt unprofessional grooming.
 I wonder how much other women (both in HR and other attorneys) are the sources of judgment here creating the norms that we then feel obliged to follow?

Peg

Veronica is right—I think it is only women who would judge somebody based on hairstyle.  I really don't think men care—at least not in professional settings.  We can be our own worst enemies. 
As for the women examples that the post references, they are all "older" women. I think many, if not most women who are past their mid-life point have short hair.  Not being "older" myself I am not quite sure why that is but speculate that is has to do with hair getting dryer, greyer, and thinner with age—all things that look better in shorter cuts.  Maybe it also has to do with changed priorities that come with age. 

CC_NC

I think this a great question that I too have been struggling with.  I agree that short hair is the norm for women in law.  But at the same time, just look around, most women in their upper 20s-40's have shoulder length hair regardless of their profession.  And then more and more women have even shorter hair starting in their 40's.  It's not just a question of a woman's appearance being distracting but how much time you want to put into your appearance which I speculate lessons as we age.  I love my long hair, and as long as it's kept up, I don't see a problem with it.  However, what I'm more worried about is looking "young."  I know, who doesn't want to look young?!  Well, most new professionals (male and female) who want to be taken seriously (think of how you view young doctors).  So, my solution has been a more layered cut that sits above my bra line.  That was a little rambly, but I hope you get the gist!
 
CC

Peg

Anecdote about the age thing:
 I have short hair and have ever since I was 18 and joined the military.  15+ years later, it is still short partly because I don't have the patience to grow it long.
 Well about two years ago I was in growing-my-hair-out hell when the length was once again getting to the point where it was making me crazy and I was tempted to just cut it all off again.  Instead, I decided to get long hair extensions just to see if I would even like having long hair again after all the years of short hair.
 Less than a week after I got the extensions I was actually accused of trying to use my mom's driver's license and visa card when making a holiday purchase at the mall.  My MOM!!!  I couldn't believe it.  The guy at the check out was basically telling me that the long hair made me look 20 years younger than I look in my driver's license picuture!  I felt really stupid (and old). 
So, maybe the point is, if you want to look older because you think that will make you look more professional or competent, then cutting your hair may be one way to do that.

dulcedieu

I think women with long hair are viewed differently across the country. I'm originally from the Northeast, but go to law school in the South. I think that people down here don't associate long hair with youthfulness the same way, I and people from my home in the Northeast do. 
I've always looked younger than I actually am, so I decided to cut my hair to chin length before begninning law school. I thought it made me look older and my family and friends agreed. But then when I moved down here, I noticed that other women my age (20s), and those in their 30s and 40s had much longer hair than a lot of women of the same age back home.
I began to think my short hair was having the opposite effect that I had intended. When I came back after winter break with a slightly shorter haircut and bangs, my suspicions were confirmed when my landlady told me I'd never get into any night clubs. She told me that I looked like a baby with my short bob. Luckily, I don't spend much time out in night clubs anyways.
Maybe I'll just look young no matter what I'll do. Anyways, I just thought I'd share. 

Elizabeth

I noticed that when my hair was long, I would play with it without realizing what I was doing.  Even if I wasn't actually touching it, I would be shaking my head to keep it out of my face (and normally I had to touch it in some way to push it off my forehead, out of my eyes, behind my ears, etc.)  I think all the touching can be very distracting (and a hard habit to break). Also, many women tend to hide behind their hair, which likewise doesn't project a confident, professional image.  I think that if your long hair is something you wear down on the weekends or at night but is up during the day at work, then it's fine.  On the other hand, I think long hair worn loose and long at work looks rather unprofessional.  Basically it is never going to make you look MORE professional to have your long hair down, it can only hurt your professional appearance.

veronica

I don't know how I could compare my experience with the last reply because I've never gone to work with my long hair "down". It just wouldn't stay looking nice all day. So I've always worn it up and thus never had a problem with being distracted.
 I guess I should own up to a natural bias, I think that long hair "up" is much tidier, easier maintenance, more professional looking than short hair "down". I've never been someone who wanted to spend more than 5 mins doing my hair in the morning. Working long hours taught me to value those extra minutes of sleep even before I had a child. Now I don't have a choice, I simply can't get more than 10 mins to myself in the bathroom so I have to minimize the time spent on my hair.
 Having long straight fine hair I find nothing is easier than brushing it out and rolling it into a bun or a twist or a claw clip while its still damp in the morning. No products, no hairdryer, no windswept look when I get to the office. I've had short hair at various points in my life (chin length and a short crop) and all of them were a LOT more work for me. I regretted both forays into short hairstyles the first morning I had to spend 30 mins styling it.
Hair is such a personal thing. The characteristics of your hair will determine how best to make it look professional. So hopefully we can all work out what's professional and what isn't without such a stereotype. I used to go to an all girls private school where the hair rule was "if it touches your collar it has to be tied up or back". While hopefully professional attorneys don't need such severe rules to make them look professional (and its certainly possible to look professional with long hair down if you're willing to take the time) ...the old school rule isn't a bad rule of thumb for professional hair I think.

CC_NC

I have really enjoyed everyone's perspective on this topic.  I have a tendancy to wear my hair down most days, but I agree that it looks less professional.  If I put some work into it (i.e., styling products and a blow dry), I think it looks professional even if down.  And that's what I do when I have a hearing or interview or something.  As one of the posters above mentioned, a lot of how you are viewed has to do with how you present yourself.  If you feel good about how you look, and don't try to hide behind your hair, you'll be viewed as more professional and confident then the chick with the short hair that she's uncomforable with!

1000faces

Honestly, I hadn't really considered hair length one way or the other.  No one's EVER told me to cut my hair; in fact, I'd probably get grief if I did b/c I'm a natural redhead.  The only thing I hear about is how pretty my hair is (usually from women) & how the speaker either wishes she had my hair or has red hair somewhere in her family but somehow missed out on it.
The longest my hair gets is mid-back & the shortest I can get away with is shoulder length.  I had my hair collar length at one time & have been told it doesn't flatter me.  Cutting it wouldn't make me look older—I'd probably just have people say I look like Molly Ringwald.  At least I'm in an area of law where looking young is an advantage.  I'm certainly not changing my hair color b/c someone claims it's a "distraction"; an army of people would kill me for even THINKING about it & probably hurt that judge.

Ana

I think what disturbs me most about this is that the length of my hair might somehow be considered in terms of my job performance.  I know I'm being somewhat idealist, but WHY does appearance matter so much?

CC_NC

To the last poster regarding equating length of hair with professional ability:  My thought is that appearance, hair and clothes for instance, creates a persona that people judge us on.  That's why first impressions matter.  If you are in in a professional environment and someone thinks you don't look the part, you may have a hard time convincing them otherwise, or even giving you the chance to convince them otherwise.  No, long hair or sloppy clothes do not reflect on our actual ability.  But we are judged on our appearances none the less.

ARutherford

I think it is ridiculous that someone might judge me based on the length of my hair. I often change my hair style…sometimes it is short. Other times, though, I wear it very long. I can look professional either way. When it is long, I wear it in a nice ponytail or low, sleek bun. Other times, I may wear it down and pull the front of it back. There is no reason that I should have to cut my hair to presumably, look more like a man, in order to be taken seriously. So long as your hair in not hot pink or blue than nobody has the right to tell me to cut it.
AND, if you work for a firm that seems to think that you should, LEAVE. More problems will follow…

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