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.

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.