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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Can Trident be hacked?

A former defence secretary has warned that Trident is vulnerable to cyber attacks. Is it?

What if, in the event of a destructive nuclear war, the prime minister goes to press the red button and it just doesn't work? 

This was the question raised by Des Browne, a former defence secretary, in an interview witht the Guardian this week. His argument, based on a report from the defence science board of the US Department of Defense, is that the UK's Trident nuclear weapons could be vulnerable to cyberattacks, and therefore rendered useless if hacked. 

Browne called for an "end-to-end" assessment of the system's cybersecurity: 

 The government ... have an obligation to assure parliament that all of the systems of the nuclear deterrent have been assessed end-to-end against cyber attacks to understand possible weak spots and that those weak spots are protected against a high-tier cyber threat. If they are unable to do that then there is no guarantee that we will have a reliable deterrent or the prime minister will be able to use this system when he needs to reach for it.

Is he right? Should we really be worried about Trident's potential cyber weaknesses?

Tangled webs 

The first, crucial thing to note is that Trident is not connected to the "internet" we use every day. Sure, it's connected to the main Ministry of Defence network, but this operates totally independently of the network that you visit Facebook through. In cyber-security terms, this means the network is "air-gapped" - it's isolated from other systems that could be less secure. 

In our minds, Trident is old and needs replacing (the submarines began patrolling in the 1990s), but any strike would be ordered and co-ordinated from Northwood, a military bunker 100m underground which would use the same modern networks as the rest of the MoD. Trident is basically as secure as the rest of the MoD. 

What the MoD said

I asked the Ministry of Defence for a statement on Trident's security, and while it obviously can't offer much information about how it all actually works, a spokesperson confirmed that the system is air-gapped and added: 

We wouldn't comment on the detail of our security arrangements for the nuclear deterrent but we can and do safeguard it from all threats including cyber.

What security experts said

Security experts agree that an air-gapped system tends to be more secure than one connected to the internet. Sean Sullivan, a security adviser at F-secure, told Infosecurity magazine that while some hackers have been able to "jump" air-gaps using code, this would cause "interference" at most and a major attack of this kind is still "a long way off". 

Franklin Miller, a former White House defence policy offer, told the Guardian that the original report cited by Browne was actually formulated in response to suggestions that some US defence networks should be connected to the internet. In that case, it actually represents an argument in favour of the type of air-gapped system used by the MoD. 

So... can it be hacked?

The answer is really that any system could be hacked, but a specialised, independent defence network is very, very unlikely to be. If a successful hack did happen, it would likely affect all aspects of defence, not just Trident. That doesn't mean that every effort shouldn't be made to make sure the MoD is using the most secure system possible, but it also means that scaremongering in the context of other, unrelated cybersecurity scares is a little unjustified. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.