Piper Hoffman

Sex Discrimination at Hair Salons

Sex discrimination is alive and well at your local hair salon. Walk in and look at the price list on the wall: "Women, $30. Men, $22." You might think there must be an explanation -- maybe women with short hair are only charged $22, for instance. Nope. I have walked into countless salons and tried to give them an out: what if I don't get a blow-dry? What if my hair is shorter than most men's? But time and again, they shake their heads. Women pay more than men, just because they are women. This is against the law. Besides the obvious prohibition on discrimination in public accommodations, five years ago, New York City amended its Administrative Code to add a provision prohibiting "the disclosure of differing prices or fees based upon gender by a retail service establishment." Nobody noticed. Hair salons are so brazen in their discriminatory pricing that they advertise it on the internet. It doesn't take much research to discover that the norm among New York City salons (especially those at the high end) is to discriminate against women, their primary clientele. The city's salons routinely break the law, and they get away with it. The absence of enforcement and laughable penalties for violations give them every incentive to continue charging women more than men. To enforce this basic anti-discrimination law, the city relies on individual consumers filing complaints -- and it doesn't make it easy. To file a complaint, a consumer must first make an appointment with the Commission on Human Rights, then visit one of the city's Community Service Centers. There are only four, one in each borough except Staten Island, and when I called to try to set up an appointment, I got a recorded message that the voicemail box was full. At the Service Center, the consumer must go through an interview in order to file a complaint. Next, according to the Commission's website, "oth sides are encouraged to participate in conciliation efforts." Rather than coming down hard on law-breakers, the city tries to sit them down with their victims and help the two parties iron things out. Imagine the city taking this approach with other law-breakers: Woman: Officer! That man just grabbed my purse! Police Officer: Ma'am, you need to look at it from his point of view. Let's all step back for a moment and see if we can't reach an understanding. If conciliation fails, the Commission investigates the complaint, and if it finds "probable cause" that discrimination occurred, it can prosecute the offending salon. The Commission's website explains that "[i]f the parties do not settle at the pre-trial conference," the case will go to trial before an administrative law judge. The judge will then issue a Report and Recommendation; that Report and Recommendation then goes to a panel of Commissioners, which reviews it and issues a final Decision and Order. It would take a seriously brassed-off consumer with a very flexible work schedule to pursue a discrimination claim this far. No wonder the salons aren't concerned. On the off chance that a hardy woman perseveres to the bitter end, she won't see much of a pay-off. A salon that breaks the city law prohibiting discriminatory pricing can be fined as little as $50 for its first offense, and no more than $250. High-end salons could pay off these fines with just a two or three haircuts. Repeat violators have little reason to mend their ways: for each successive violation, the city can fine an offending salon no more than $500. I went through a very similar enforcement process in another state. When I lived in Maryland, I got the State Commission on Human Relations to issue warnings to two salons that charged women more than men. At the time, my hair was shorter than that of most men, and I preferred not to have it styled or dried after a cut (there wasn't much there to style or dry anyway), but salons still charged me more than they charged my husband for the same service. It took a lot of phone calls, a lot of letters, and a lot of time on my part, and in the end the two salons that I reported did change their signs and started charging by the length of the customer's hair rather than what was in his or her pants. But their competitors throughout the state continued to discriminate. Like their New York counterparts, they had little incentive to stop. The law is clear, and intuitive too. The enforcement process should be just as simple. One city worker could handle the whole thing, which would cost the city less than all the workers who now interview and conciliate and otherwise bureaucratize. This one worker could just wander into salons pretty much at random and note the discriminatory prices helpfully posted in their windows or behind the cashier. Then she could issue citations on the spot, and they should have some teeth -- say, $10,000 for the first offense. If the salon hasn't cleaned up its act the next time she drops by, let's hit them with a $100,000 fine. The third time, close the place down. Businesses that break the law so deliberately and discriminate against their best customers do not deserve coddling, and the consumers they victimize should not have to do the government's job of law enforcement. The current system benefits those who think anti-discrimination laws are a joke; as long as that group includes our local government, it is individual consumers who will continue to suffer. For those of you in New York City, you can find more information about filing a complaint with the New York City Commission on Human Rights by calling (212) 306-7450, or clicking on http://home.nyc.gov/html/cchr/html/processing.html.

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