According to a recent story on The Lily, women in medicine, particularly Latinx and Black women, are being unfairly judged as unprofessional because of their choice to wear hoop earrings during work or school hours.
What started as a tweet from a doctor recalling her being docked points on a practical exam in medical school for wearing hoop earrings turned into a chorus of similar stories from women of color in the medical profession with thousands of doctors and medical students tweeting with the hashtag #BigHoopEnergy.
Many of the women’s stories touched on how personal appearance is policed by those with seniority or who are in positions of power. These experiences fit into a wider constellation of confrontations over workplace appearance between people of color and the older, whiter establishment that makes assumptions about an apparent lack of professionalism because of hairstyle, clothing or accessories.
While some forms of appearance discrimination are prohibited by law, such as those that infringe on a protected class, there is less clarity nationally regarding issues related to dress codes and hairstyles, as evidenced by the Supreme Court’s unwillingness to consider EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions where a black employee was fired for refusing to cut her dreadlocks.
New York City and New York State have taken a more liberal approach in fighting race-based discrimination. The NYC and NYS Human Rights Laws specifically define natural hair style as a racially protected characteristic. NYC imposes disparate treatment liability for any employer who subjects an individual to less favorable treatment because of a protected characteristic.
Similarly, Latinx and Black women’s unfavorable treatment based on their choice to wear hoop earrings likely qualifies as disparate treatment on the basis of race and gender, as hoop earrings have longstanding associations with minority communities. An employer looking to prohibit medical professionals from wearing hoop earrings can impose an across-the-board dress code policy prohibiting all employees from wearing large earrings. Yet, the policy’s implementation must be proportionate across all employees and not just those with protected characteristics under the law.
Regardless of the legality, such experiences as the one described in the Lily demonstrate the difficulty women of color have being judged in professional settings by their appearance rather than their skills and experience.