Denmark was right to ban discrimination in hair salons

If you're trying to end gender discrimination, then end gender discrimination.

After being picked up by the Daily Mail, a Reuters story on a ruling by Denmark's Board of Equal Treatment has spread far and wide. Mia Shanley writes:

It ordered a salon advertising women's haircuts for 528 crowns ($94) and men's haircuts for 428 crowns - plus an extra fee for long hair - to pay 2,500 crowns ($450) to a woman who had filed a complaint.

Now, a trade organization for hairdressers has called the decision absurd, saying it will become a nightmare to set prices for customers and warning of "pricing chaos".

"It takes, quite simply, longer time with women," Connie Mikkelsen, chairwoman of the Danish organization for independent hairdressers and cosmeticians, said in a statement on Monday.

The story is being passed off as yet another example of loony Scandinavian gender politics, but I'm not so sure I agree.

The actual report (run through Google translate, it does relatively well with Danish) gives more detail on the story. The complainant is a woman with a short, boyish haircut, who was nonetheless told she would have to pay the price for a "woman's haircut" (over £10 more). She left without getting her hair cut, and complained to the Board of Equal Treatment.

In other words, a woman, who wanted to purchase an identical service to a man, was told that she had to pay a £10 surcharge for being a woman. Not for having long hair — which would take more time to cut, and be a justifiable expense — nor, she claims, for wanting a more complex cut — the salon claims she could have got a male price if she'd wanted clippers, but I, and the Board, find it hard to believe a salon offering a £50 men's haircut would refuse to use anything but clippers on a man — but simply for being female.

That seems a textbook example of gender discrimination. It could be easily avoided by offering, say, "women's style" and "men's style" haircuts, or haircuts for "long" and "short" hair. But instead — and I think the complainant hits the nail on the head when she argues that the price difference is based on the traditional pricing in the industry, rather than the pricing which best reflects the costs involved — it has opted to price based on gender.

Far from ludicrous over-stretching of gender equality laws, it sounds more like the very reason they were made. No wonder the salon lost, and was ordered to pay a little under £300 in compensation.

 

Photograph: untitled by . ally on flickr.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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There are sinister goings-on in the race to become the UN's next Secretary-General

The United Nations can and must do better than this, says David Clark. 

2016 was meant to be a year of firsts for the United Nations as it prepares to choose a new Secretary-General. Optimism was growing that the top job would go to a woman for the first time in the world body’s seventy-year history. There was an emerging consensus that it should be someone from Eastern Europe, the only region never to have held the post, provided a candidate of the right calibre was put forward. Above all, the selection was supposed to break new ground in openness and transparency after decades in which decisions were stitched up in private by a handful of the most powerful countries. Innovations like open nominations, public campaigning and candidates hustings were introduced in a bid to improve public scrutiny.
 
All of that now threatens to be turned on its head as the battle to succeed Ban Ki-moon becomes embroiled in intrigues and plots, according to stories that have surfaced in the Belgian and Portuguese media in the last week. Allegations centre on the activities of former European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, and ex-Portuguese MEP turned lobbyist, Mario David. Both are said to be promoting the undeclared candidacy of Kristalina Georgieva, the serving European Commission Vice-President from Bulgaria. Barroso reportedly arranged for Georgieva to participate in a recent meeting of the Bilderberg group in order to boost her profile with world leaders. David is said to be touring the capitals of Eastern Europe to canvas support.
 
While there is nothing necessarily unusual about senior European politicians supporting a colleague in her bid for a major international job, there are two things that make this case very different. The first is that Bulgaria already has an official candidate in the person of Irina Bokova, a career diplomat currently serving her second elected term as Director-General of UNESCO. Reports suggest that Barroso is among those pressing the Bulgarian government to switch its nomination to Georgieva, while David’s role has been to find another country in the region willing to nominate her in the event that Bulgaria refuses to budge. The second piece of the puzzle is that Portugal also has an official candidate – its former Prime Minister, Antonio Guterres – who Barroso still publicly insists he is supporting.
 
It is in the nature of the way these matters are often decided that there is no necessary contradiction between these facts. Georgieva’s candidacy would appear to stand no real chance of success. She lacks diplomatic experience and news reports suggest that the Bulgarian Prime Minister’s decision not to support her was based on information linking her to the communist-era intelligence services. And while there is nothing to stop another country nominating her, precedent suggests that a lack of domestic support will be fatal to her chances. Georgieva is highly unlikely to end up as UN Secretary-General, yet she could still have a significant role to play as a spoiler. Bulgaria’s official candidate, Irina Bokova, is frequently described as the frontrunner. As a woman from Eastern Europe with heavyweight UN experience, she certainly has an edge. A rival Bulgarian woman candidate would create doubt about the strength of her support and potentially open the way for other candidates. The aspirants who stand to benefit most are men from outside Eastern Europe. Step forward Antonio Guterres.
 
Those with the best chance of preventing these manoeuvres from succeeding are the governments of Eastern Europe. Although the principle of rotation does not confer on them the automatic right to have one of their own chosen to run the UN, a degree of unity and professionalism in the way they approach the contest would make their claim much harder to resist. Unfortunately there has so far been little evidence of the kind of collective solidarity and diplomatic co-ordination that helped to deliver the top UN job to Africa and Asia in the past. The strongest advocate for Eastern Europe is currently Russia, although it has stopped short of threatening to use its veto in the way that China was prepared to do for Asia when Ban Ki-moon was appointed in 2006.
 
In addition to casting doubt on Eastern Europe’s chances, the descent into private plotting is an ominous warning to those campaigning for the UN to become more open and representative – the appointment of a new Secretary-General may not prove to be the turning point they had hoped for. What is the point of public hustings for candidates when the real discussions are taking place at a closed meeting of Bilderberg group? Why bother to encourage women candidates to put forward their names when the power brokers of international diplomacy already have their man? Seventy years after it was established, the UN should have found a better way to do this. It still can.

David Clark was Robin Cook’s special adviser at the Foreign Office 1997-2001.