Breaking the Bias: A look at colorism and sexism in the workplace


In March the world celebrated women’s month under the theme ‘Breaking the bias.’ In this article I talk about colorism as an aspect of the gender biases that characterize recruitment processes with primary focus on the interview room in the global south where I have drawn inspiration to pen this. This recruitment space is important because it is a gateway to accessing the right to work and equal work conditions. Regardless of the fight women have put to belong in an environment where their right to work and equal work conditions are promoted and secured the existence of gender biases in the workplace is not a surprise. There is still a tendency to prefer one talent to another on the basis of gender, race, disability, age etc. This right to work and equal work conditions has not been universally realised.

 Colorism in African society

Colorism is the dislike and unfair treatment of the members of a particular racial group who have darker skin color than others. In Africa where most of the workforce is black and managed by black managers racism is not a big problem in comparison to America and other European countries. The American and European society has played a big role in increasing our awareness of it especially in the show business, movie industry and the modelling industry where dark skinned women have been marginalized. In recent years prominent women like Viola Davis, Lupita Nyongo and Tyra Banks have led conversation on the challenges they have faced and are fighting in their industries.

Picture by Elle

Colorism is highly prevalent in Africa, as a residue of the colonial legacy and due to influence from the beauty industry. It affects women more than men and is responsible for high use of skin lightening products by women of all ages. These women fear being less attractive to their potential suitors and partners than the skin cancers that they become vulnerable to through use of skin lighteners. Society is particularly harsh to women who are darker as they are not associated with beauty and attractiveness. For some who are not born with pride in their natural existence it takes a special kind of courage to present themselves in their black and beautiful pigments. As a result, the World Health Organisation statistics show that 40% of African women bleach their skin with countries like Nigeria, Togo, South Africa, Senegal and Mali respectively recording 77%, 59%, 35%, 27% and 25% usage of skin lightening products.

Colorism in the workplace

Unfortunately, colorism is not only affecting women in social spaces only but those in the workplaces too where skill and intelligence should matter the most. Colorism plays a role in the workplace for black females because of beliefs surrounding attractiveness and smartness. These beliefs are of course rooted in racial biases. In the 1940s psychologists designed and conducted a series of experiments known as the ‘doll tests’ to study the psychological effects of racism on African American children aged between 3 and 7.

The study revealed that white dolls got assigned positive characteristics of beauty, intelligence, success, amicability compared to black dolls that were assigned negative characteristics. These psychological perceptions are no different to the ones associated with colorism.

Picture taken from Peaceful Science

Matthew S. Harrison states that it is common for lighter skinned black women to have higher salaries than black women with darker skin tones who have very similar resumes. Thompson and Keith (2001) explain that dark skinned women experience the triple jeopardy situation due to their race, gender and skin tone, where all can have negative and damaging effects on her esteem and feelings of competency.

Impact on recruitment

Skin pigmentation is playing a role in how women are being hired and this is starting in the interview room where men and women who have overt and concealed colorism biases sit to select the most suitable candidates for a job. Darker skinned women find themselves needing to perform thrice as much lighter skinned women and men. Where jobs may need one to interface with the public there is an inclination towards hiring women who are lighter skin for the sake of the public and business. From a business perspective it is thought that lighter toned women will bring in more business from men who are likely to just drop in to catch a glance at the office beauty while female customers may associate them with being kind and understanding. Shockingly simple comments such as “She is a beauty the boys will like her” and “She is too ugly to put at the front office” have been uttered by hiring managers in interview rooms.  Interestingly jobs that require hard decisions to be made and which become open during crisis times are more likely to be given to darker toned women. Colorist views should never dominate interview room decisions. Where job descriptions are not mentioning beauty, attractiveness and skin tone as a criterion, standards about the same should never clandestinely find themselves deciding the grading of candidates.

The dangers of colorism and sexist biases

Such perceptions are dangerous and disadvantageous. Obviously, there is a high risk of losing talent in dark toned women if colorist perceptions are allowed expression. There is danger that their views and ideas will not be picked simply because of their skin tone. They can easily be associated with aggression, cruelty, and masculinity probably because they find themselves having to push harder than anyone in the office due to the multiple layers of discrimination they experience.

 On the other hand, colorist perceptions in recruitment expose lighter toned women to sexual harassment. Attractiveness and beauty easily get associated with sluttiness and availability. Sexist and misogynistic values thrive where colorist perceptions are promoted. The male hiring managers and the rest of the male workforce can easily think these ‘pretty’ coworkers are available for their picking. Also, female hiring managers and other female workforce that may be promoters of colorist views can side with the men and allow exploitative conditions to thrive. Women victims of colorism can easily blame lighter skin toned women for becoming victims of sexual harassment in the workplace and can even celebrate their demise due to their resentment of some ‘perks and privileges’ that light skin toned women get to enjoy from bosses and coworkers. Additionally, the competency of light skin toned women can be easily overlooked due to emphasis on beauty and attractiveness by hiring managers, bosses, and colleagues. Of course, some light skin toned women have enjoyed the privileges that come with their skin tone.

At the end of the day none of these women win! When everyone enters the workplace, they want their skills and competences related to the work they have been hired to do to define their professional standing. Positively, all women are realizing the need to fight this vice as a collective.

What can we do?

The first step in challenging biases is becoming aware of the biases. We should talk about these biases wherever they are evident and any incident that promotes them should be challenged immediately. If you are a hiring manager and the issue comes up from others on the panel you should immediately explain why colorist perspectives can’t be used to inform the competency of a candidate. Company policies particularly those on diversity and inclusion should address colorism and companies must educate their workers on the same policies. Management must make it clear to staff that colorism will not be tolerated in the workplace and they should be exemplary in their own conduct.


Colorism is an oppressive that system that marginalises both light and dark skin toned women in the workplace. It has no place in progressive workplaces that promote gender equality and inclusion. It is important to become aware of it and to address it as part of creating inclusive work environments.

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