Fresh out of the prestigious, London hairdressing college, Vidal Sassoon, I had no idea that my career would take me down a path into a male dominated environment. After good, solid experience at a RAF base, I applied to a traditional, old school, back street barber shop in Stevenage, Suffolk. Although this was not what I had in mind after leaving Sassoon’s, through perseverance and humor I gained acceptance in a male dominated environment.
When I look back in hindsight, what I thought was prejudice against women barbers turned out to be, an issue of men’s desire for privacy. Mike, the owner of The Regency, had never had a woman work in his shop in the 30 years that he had owned it, but no male barbers had applied so Mike, gave me a chance and said, “His clients would just have to get used to it”. My Vidal Sassoon training combined with my experience at the RAF base was proving invaluable and second to none. Mike paid top wages to his barbers and I couldn’t wait to earn my crust.
In my first few weeks, I was available with an empty chair to cut men’s hair as they came into the barber shop. The men would come in, sit down and would wait for one of the men to cut their hair, even though they had to wait for up to an hour, sometimes more. Some men wouldn’t even acknowledge me. I would invite them into my chair and they would look straight through me like I didn’t exist. I felt some embarrassment due to this snubbing and somehow, felt that I had no value. Some of the men would be polite and say that they would prefer to wait, that they prefered a man to cut their hair. I had one man say that it wasn’t a woman’s place in a barber shop, “A bloody disgrace!” I could feel knives of disapproval needling me in the back. Some of them were disgruntled by the very sight of me, some, just plain rude. I couldn’t understand their prejudice, how dare they! Secretly though, I wanted their acceptance.
As time went on and I had been there a while and the “regulars” could see that I was a professional at my craft, more men let me cut their hair. Word of mouth in a place like that travels pretty fast. One of Mike’s oldest regulars, Jim, would come to the shop every week. He made it clear that Mike was his Barber. As time went on, I began chatting with Jim when Mike was cutting his hair and got to know him a little. We bantered back and forth a little. He would tease me saying that one day he might let me cut his hair, while I regaled him with stories. Then one Saturday, there was a queue building up for Mike, Rob, and Rick, and I had an empty chair. I sat there for a while feeling useless, when finally a man came in and jumped into my chair. He said, “Some Blokes don’t like having Birds cut their hair, but I don’t really care, I don’t want to wait.” This statement perplexed me. “What’s the difference?” I asked myself. I was a better barber, by my boss’s and male co-workers own admission. What was going on here? So I started talking to customers that were more open about their opinions. I asked them questions and this is what they revealed; The Barbershop was the place that men went to be with other men. A kind of social club, exclusively for men. Traditionally, the barbershop was the place that a man went on a Saturday morning to get his haircut, in preparation for Church and dinner on Sunday, while the wife did the shopping. Men would talk, man talk and get away from the Mrs. for a spell. One would chat to his barber about what was going on in the town, how his family and work were doing ; or one would just read the paper and have some time to oneself. To have a woman in the shop, was unacceptable!
Surprisingly, many men revealed to me, that they felt embarrassed talking to a woman about their hair or even talking openly while a female was in the shop. Others would complain that they didn’t really have anything against ladies cutting their hair, but going into a unisex salon was embarrassing and they didn’t like the haircuts that they received at unisex salons. Many of them had never had a lady cut their hair, for these reasons. Also, that they had to have their hair shampooed when they just wanted a basic dry cut; a whole lot of fuss was being made that they just didn’t want.
I really felt for these men. I felt like an infiltrator. An imposter! Here I was, a woman that could enter into any ladies salon, without the worry of a man being there. I felt some embarrassment. These men had been going to Mike’s since they were boys and now they did not have a barbershop without a woman present. I realized that they were not prejudice towards me cutting men's hair, they just wanted their privacy! Traditionally, ladies went to ladies salons and men went to barber shops for the same reasons; to gossip about each other and talk about their lives without their other half! It was a way of taking space, men could talk about “man stuff”. They felt comfortable about talking about their appearance and their life with their barber, without females around. This was quite an eye opener for me and how times and attitudes were changing and forcing these men to change.
Then, one day, Mike had a couple of customers waiting and Jim came in, but instead of waiting for Mike, he said that he would to give me a try! I could hardly suppress the grin that was forcing its way to the surface of my face from the core of my being. Keeping my head down, I gowned him up and started cutting his hair. I started straight in with a story for him. “She’s doing a better job than you, Michael! I might have found myself a new barber!” he quipped with a chuckle. They had known each other a long time. “I told you!” Mike retorted. I couldn’t believe it, Mike’s oldest customer was sitting in my chair. I finally felt the warmth of acceptance.
After that Jim traded back and forth between Mike and myself. There were other customers that still went to Mike or Rob or came in on my day off but I accepted that they would never change their attitude with the changing times. Although I empathized with these men, I was not going to quit because they wanted their privacy. Mike hired me to do a job. I was a barber in my own right.