Latent sexism and haircuts in Denmark {guest post by Claire Bertolus}

Many of you may have gone slightly green with envy this week upon reading that a Danish tribunal has ruled that women should have to pay no more than men to get their hair cut.

Indeed, the price of getting a chop in Copenhagen is so prohibitive that I regularly go six months between salon visits – how embarrassing. And like you, I have often wished that I was paying $20 for a fifteen minute spin under the scissors instead of more than $120 for carefully applied organic shampoo and a blow dry.

But don’t apply for a visa to live in Denmark just yet ladies.

Latent sexism still corrupts even the most highly regulated societies. In fact, the problem may be the regulation.

There are many who seem to think that the existence of a comfortable maternity/paternity leave scheme and the right to equal pay for equal work mean that the battle for female equality is over and that “sexism doesn’t really exist anymore, that was in the ’70s” (actual quote from an actual Danish man).

But like most social problems, putting a law in place doesn’t change anything if society doesn’t come right along with it (see for e.g. latent homophobia and racism). I will happily concede that the Danish legal system provides a framework for protection against systematic sexism that is rivalled only by our Swedish and Norwegian friends. Women in Denmark enjoy a range of rights that women in Australia, the USA (let alone parts of the middle east and India) are still fighting hard for.

But they pay for those legal rights by not being able to complain when the casual sexism that pervades society rears its ugly head. Actual quote from actual Danish boss “We’re past the whole sexism thing right? I’ve known you long enough…” (insert unprintably insulting joke here). Actual quote from actual Danish dentist extracting a friend’s wisdom tooth “This is my favourite part of the day…when I can get a woman to shut up for half an hour”.

Danish women, for fear of being labelled scary feminists, are largely silent in the face of this everyday “banter”. Sometimes they use laughter as the best defence. But god forbid they appear to be offended on behalf of their sex (or even personally); that would be rather humourless. And besides, women and men are all equal right? So it’s funny? Wrong, occasionally it’s mildly amusing, mostly it makes me feel uncomfortable and belittled.

The fallacy of protection against sexism through the legal system in Denmark has, in my experience, led to a culture that is too relaxed about the possibility of casual everyday sexism in the workplace, amongst friends and even amongst women themselves.

Put away your passports girls, and keep on fighting for both your legal rights and the right to live free from harassment within society at large. Cheap haircuts are not a substitute for true equality.

Claire Bertolus happens to be my sister. She lives in Copenhagen, Denmark with her delightful Danish boyfriend and is currently doing her Masters in Communication, or some such important sounding thing. Her days are filled with writing her thesis, laughing at Grumpy Cat pictures and doing yoga. You can read her other guest posts for me here  and here and follow her on twitter here.
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  1. I wish I could be in and out of the hairdresser’s just as quickly as a man, but until society sees a woman’s greys to be just as distinguishing as a man’s, I will keep going every 6 weeks for most of my Saturday morning. That’s what really sucks!

  2. Really surprised to ready this! My mother in law is 100% Dane (so my husband, known online as “The Viking” is 50% Dane) and this is something she has never mentioned. Nor has the rest of the family. I’ll be interested to see if I pick up on it when I visit there this year or if it’s something you only notice when you’re entrenched in society, like the casual racism here.
    Tamsin Howse recently posted..JJ’s Australia Day Mix-TapeMy Profile

  3. Claire bertolus says:

    I wouldn’t say it was necessarily worse here in Denmark than in other places Tamsin. But the post feminist vibe that exists elsewhere is definitely present. If we’re not careful as a generation then I believe that the gains of previous generations may put us in a good legal position but a very uncertain social position. No doubt some of what I feel is also cultural. It feels as if there is much more of a traditional social divide between men and women here- with girls sports and boys sports etc. surprisingly, even though I attended a girls school in Australia, I remain much better at casually interacting with the opposite sex than a lot if my Danish friends- who tend to stick to same sex friendship groups but are shocked to hear that single sex schools exist. Good luck and god tur as they say here!

  4. i love expat posts because i am an expat myself. I spent many summers in Denmark sailing, as a child and remember only lovely people and crushes on very blond boys with crew cuts, but for having lived and worked in Germany and France I must say your experience sounds like what I have felt in those countries as well, AND then here in Queensland. It’s true, a country is only ever so modern and tolerant as it is reflected in everyday situations, and not only by the laws it has. but when it comes to feminism, I am actually the most confused now&here in Australia. I think that the upcoming generation Y, who is now getting into the workplace, is not living up to the expectations and all the hard battles of their mothers and grandmothers. They could be way more liberated than they chose to be, but no, they all happily embrace sexual stereotypes, and that makes it easier for your average bogan (even those with a degree, say macho if you will) to power up again.
    When it comes to haircuts, it irks me forever that for my SHORT hair I pay a high tarif just because I am female, but I also sometimes think, this is hardly an issue here (SE QLD just out of Brisbane) as I seem to be the ONLY woman in the entire population to even have short hair. In Brisbane clubs, this seemed to identify me as ‘obviously lesbian’, which I always found hilarious. But it’s also a bit sad. Latent sexism, indeed, but I believe this works both ways.
    interesting post, i will check out your blog 🙂
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    • Claire Bertolus says:

      Interesting thoughts Nikki- I too have short hair and it has been mentioned by my Danish girlfriends that short hair is considered only for women over 50 here 😉 I also suspect that the situation is being somewhat influenced by the extremely tight state of the job market here- no one wants to make themselves unpalatable to potential employers by making a fuss. This has been noted in the states as well. See HBOs Girls, season one for an amusing example.

  5. I do accede with you Claire, Latent sexism corrupts high profile societies and making a law doesn’t change anything until society don’t take any initiatives by themselves.

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