Saturday, 11 September 2010


A young attractive woman walks into an office for an interview but is barely noticed and the interview does not go very well for her.
She confides in her friend about her problem and is advised to apply a fairness cream that will show results in four weeks’ time.
She does as advised and in four weeks she is back for the interview and this time round, she gets her dream job in broadcasting as well as the attention of a handsome young pilot, all this due to her now fairer skin.
This was the plot of an advertisement for a fairness cream that was run on local television channels a few years back.
The advert alluded to the notion that light-skinned women get more opportunities in the job market than their darker-skinned counterparts.
Though the advert was deemed as offensive by some, it may have been onto something we are not paying attention to, if studies on skin colour and job opportunities, conducted in different parts of the world are anything to go by.
The studies show that the lighter-skinned black people have it easier in the job market than their darker-skinned counterparts.
A study at the University of Georgia in the United States in 2006 showed that dark-skinned blacks faced a distinct disadvantage when applying for jobs as compared to light-skinned applicants.
This was despite the fact that the applicants had the same level of education. In some cases, the dark-skinned applicants had higher levels of education and were more experienced.
In Kenya, even though the situation is not anywhere near as dire as in the US, it does exist all the same. A young man told me of an incident where he took his female friend for a job interview as a mobile phone sales girl in a shop in Nairobi.
The owner of the shop talked to the women for a few minutes then told her that he would get back to her but once she was out of the door, he called the man who brought her to ask him who would buy phones from such a black girl.
The young man could not believe what he was hearing but the poor girl’s fate was sealed; she did not get the job. Phylis Kemunto, 28, went to a modeling agency to try and get a side hustle to supplement her income when she was a university student a few years back.
The agent asked her for Sh1,500 so that she could be registered with the agency. She was then asked to pay Sh8,000 for her portfolio pictures to be taken.
“After five months of silence, I called the agent to find out why I had not been called for any job,” Kemunto says.
“The man asked me whether I seriously expected to be called for jobs given my dark skin and subsequently turned his phone off.”
Kemunto tried to get her money back but gave up when the agent showed her the contract she had signed, jobs were not guaranteed and her money was not refundable.
Hildah Amollo, a 26-year-old lawyer, has also dealt with rejection due to her dark skin. “I have always been comfortable in my skin so it was a rude shock to discover that someone could refuse to give me a job on account of my skin tone.”
There are jobs that she can never dream of applying for, she says. “I do not think I have a chance of ever getting a job in sales or as an air hostess, that is just not in the cards for me,” she says.
Amollo says that she finds consolation in the fact that the jobs she does get are due to her brains and achievements. “Light-skinned women have a disadvantage in that most people will take them at face value believing that what they have going for them is their colour.
They always have to prove they have brains unlike darkies like us,” says Amollo.
Tony Chirah, who is in the modeling industry admits that in the advertising industry, light skin is preferred.
“The largest consumer of modeling services is the advertisers,” Said Chirah, “and one of the top components is visibility.”
According to Chirah, this works for the light-skinned models because lighter skin reflects more light than dark skin.
“Visibility is all about light. The more light reflected, the more the visibility. Most advertising work uses photography, where the light element is key.” He said.
“Take eyebrows, eyelashes, hair, hairline, lip line and curves, for example, against equal light intensity, those of a light skinned person will appear more enhanced than those of a dark-skinned one and even shadow areas would appear better pronounced on lighter skin.” Chirah explained.
Betty Rubia, 21, knows her dark skin has contributed to her missing out on more than a few lucrative advertising jobs.
Although she can, by no means, be described as very dark, she knows that women who have lighter skin complexion than hers get more jobs in her chosen career as a model.
Betty got into the industry together with her close friend Sarah Ngina, a year ago. A while back, the two friends, who are members of the Kenya modelling fraternity, were called to audition for a toothpaste commercial.
The most important features for this advertisement were the teeth and only one model could be picked and that honour was given to Ngina.
“All the models present had been called to the audition because they had good teeth,” Ngina said, “I think the edge I had over the other girls was my skin tone because I saw women there who had beautiful teeth, but who did not make it for the job and wondered why.”
Betty says that it is not only in modeling that the light-skinned women have it easier. To her, all careers pegged on appearance tend to generally favour light-skinned women.
“The fact is you are more likely to see light-skinned secretaries, receptionists and TV presenters.”
This also goes for air hostesses and women who work in the hotel industry as front-office managers and waitresses.
“I think men, who are usually in the majority when it comes to interview panels generally settle for the lighter-skinned women who they are known to view as more attractive,” says Betty.
She agrees with this view saying that if two women were interviewed by a man and they had the same qualifications as well the same level of experience, the lighter-skinned one is more likely to get the job.
“It is common knowledge that men find light-skinned women more attractive so they are more likely to gravitate towards them when hiring,” she says.
Betty concedes that sometimes the rejection she faces at job interviews does get to her. “It is very difficult when you know you did not get the job because of your skin tone as you cannot change it unless you bleach your skin,” she says.
“This kind of discrimination is very subtle and usually goes unnoticed, but a discerning person will always know when it is not her brains that was being looked at,” she adds.
According to Chirah, the dark-skinned catwalk models are preferred to their lighter-skinned counterparts because their features do not compete for attention with the clothes they are supposed to be selling.
Lyndsey McIntrye of Surazuri modelling agency adds that international casting agents today prefer dark-skinned models who they find ‘unique and interesting’.
“A scout from Ford in New York was recently here and she was very impressed with some girls she saw from Sudan who were very dark-skinned.” McIntyre says.
McIntyre said that the dark-skinned models are more likely to make it internationally due to their unique looks. Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek and Kenyan model Ajuma Nasenyana are perfect examples.
For a long time, the industry was crowded with white women or very light-skinned black woman. Rarely did you see any woman like Wek on the catwalk. The MNET Face of Africa is the one body that has done a lot to popularise the woman with the darker skin on the catwalk.
But looking for dark-skinned women because they are ‘unique and interesting’ in itself is not a good thing according to Betyy.
When asked about the issue of dark-skinned models being preferred on the catwalk she says, “The fact that someone can say modeling agents prefer us because we do not compete for attention with the clothes is, in itself, demeaning. I want to get a job because I deserve it, not because of some other extraneous reasons.”
To her, that is not a positive attribute to be proud of. “How would you feel if someone told you they prefer you because you are not noticeable, I mean is that a good thing to anyone?” she wonders.
According to Betty, this kind of colour discrimination is minimal in ‘serious’ professions such as accounting, law and medicine.
“In these professions, it’s the papers that count more than anything.” She says. According to her, unlike modeling or air hostess jobs, these jobs require training and as long as one has undergone the necessary training, then they are bound to get a job.
“I chose to become a lawyer because I knew that all I had to do was work hard in school and pass my course,” she says.
Vicki Nduku, a director at Jawabu Consultancy, a job placement firm, agrees with this view.
Vicki believes that firms in Kenya employ both men and women based on their performance and not the colour of their skin.
She deals with employers from different types of professions and they are only concerned about what a particular individual can contribute to the company’s performance.
“I know for a fact that serious employers in Kenya don’t look at skin colour, they prefer to hire someone based on their performance,” Vicki says.
Psychologist Chris Hart says that the number of women who use skin-lightening creams might be a pointer to the pressure dark-skinned women face in several aspects of their life such as relationship and the job market.
“While skin tones do affect how people feel about themselves, and how they are perceived by others, the basic reasons for this are not at all clear, and probably subject to fashion and other influences.” he says.
According to Hart, the best women will get the best jobs (and husbands), so it all depends on how a woman perceives herself.
“There’s no rule that says lighter is better than darker.”

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