Mind the Gap

Was I guilty of workplace sexism?

Cosmo: I was recently shut-down/no-platformed/censored/cancelled – call it what you will – not at some prestigious university or debating society, but at my local, high-street hair salon. I was having a haircut when I collided with history and had my very own #MeToo moment.

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be another one of those, “You can’t say anything these days in the workplace without some snowflake getting up upset” pieces. Plot spoiler alert: I was the snowflake! Here’s what happened.

I was chatting away with the young Spanish lady cutting my hair and we got onto the subject of what sort of men she found attractive. Johnny Depp? I asked. She cooed. Daniel Craig? No, not so much. Brad Pitt? Ye-eees!

To which I replied: Funny you should say that, I look just like Brad Pitt with my clothes off. (Or did I say naked?). Anyway, she laughed, I laughed.

The other female stylist in the salon, who was with a customer, didn’t laugh.

“That’s inappropriate,” she barked.

“What?” I said. I thought she was joking, but I spun around to look at my accuser: a young woman with shaven head and zebra trousers painting a client’s hair lilac.

“That was an inappropriate comment in the workplace.”

I tried to explain. Look, I wasn’t seriously suggesting I looked like Brad Pitt! On the contrary, I was making a self-deprecating remark; the joke was on me! There was no hint of sexual innuendo or flirtation.

Or was there?

In retrospect I should have been the gracious, well-mannered gent I aspire to be and said: Madam, if I’ve caused any offence then I’m happy to apologise. But no, oh no! Mr Cosmo Snowflake was seething with righteous anger: who was this Nazi-feminist-bully to tell me, in effect, to shut up when I hadn’t even said anything wrong!

This is just so unfair! I demand justice! And so I went on the attack and told her: you have no sense of humour, you have no right to shut me down, I’m going to tell your boss, I’ll never come here again.

Since then, I’ve had time to reflect on what happened. OK, I admit it was an unfunny, cheesy joke that now causes me to wince. But here’s the tough question: was it really an innocent bit of banter as we men who make these jokes claim? Was I, at some subconscious level, flirting by suggesting I’m the sort of man who can mock himself – and isn’t that attractive? Maybe I was inviting her to say, “Well you may not have the body of Brad but you’re still an attractive older man!” She’d already told me what wonderful hair I had.

I don’t honestly know but I’m sure that you do, Róisín! I know what you’re going say: Yuck! How embarrassing! (You’re doing the finger-down-the-throat gagging gesture as you read this, aren’t you?) She called out my latent everyday sexism, right?

But there’s no simple right and wrong here; we were both locked into a certain mindset that is typical of the times we live in. I thought I was standing up against a #MeToo excess and she thought she was taking a stand on behalf of women subjected to sexism in the workplace.

We were both taking the right positions – but it was just the wrong occasion. I’ve learnt my lesson. I hope.

Róisín: Okay Cosmo, you asked for advice, so I’m going to give you some. I think you need to find a new place to get your haircut. And look, this isn’t me being a “feminazi” (a vintage insult, right up there with “four-eyes” or “berk”, we love a throwback), it’s a concern for your general wellbeing and aesthetic vision. I wonder why you would be choosing to patronise an establishment where the other customers are having their hair painted lilac (sounds gorge, not that I need more inspiration to do an ill-advised shave and bleach of my own head) by zebra-trouser-wearing stylists (again gorge, don’t suppose you overheard where she bought them before this unfortunate exchange?). My advice is not to let the urge to play devil’s advocate override your need for a haircut that won’t make you look like an overgrown TikTok creator.
I also find it confusing that you were so forward-thinking aesthetically in choosing an avant-garde place for a haircut, yet so ancient in your banter. The complaint about “snowflakes” policing your speech in workplace settings feels just so… old-fashioned.

I don’t say “old-fashioned” to mean the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, the ever-changing eras that boomers will insist were the good old days where you could say and do as you pleased (as long as you were a white man). No: “old-fashioned” to mean, didn’t we have this exact conversation, like, five years ago? After #MeToo first put a spotlight on how we speak to, and treat, women in the workplace, the conversation understandably changed from a focus on the often-violent ways women are preyed on by men in professional settings to the more insidious ways they might experience micro-aggressions that, while (perhaps) harmless in intention, are still inherently misogynistic.
Of course, that led to a slew of complaints from older men outing themselves as office weirdos, complaining in anonymous columns that they were afraid to offer Sharon from HR a hug on her birthday lest the police be called. It was all very over the top and tiresome, and then a million other things happened and we gradually, collectively – well, I would have hoped – realised that times have changed and although that was something for pervy boomers to grumble about, it wasn’t something it was possible for them to change (thankfully for the rest of us). 

Change is hard, though, and while it might be easy to transform how we interact with each other on paper, in real life things are messier. Hence your barbershop interaction. Your realisation that the power dynamic in the world has shifted from men to women made you automatically reach to rebalance that dynamic by calling for the manager (The fact it’s legible behaviour sadly doesn’t make this power-play any less cringe). I would argue, Cosmo, that given your period of reflection, you’re not confused or surprised: you’re just embarrassed. As you say yourself, the joke wasn’t funny. You tried for Brad Pitt and ended up as Karen.

Cosmo: Róisín, I take great exception to your suggestion that my new haircut makes me look like an “overgrown TikTok creator”, whatever that is. On the contrary, it makes me look exactly like Michael Douglas – with his clothes on!

Oops. Pardon my “inherently misogynistic” micro-aggression, but people of my generation call that “self-deprecation”. Have you heard of it? Along with irony it used to be a popular feature of English humour until a generation of self-proclaimed social justice warriors decided they preferred self-righteousness instead.

Still, I’m very glad to hear that according to you we are living in a world where the conversations about sexism in the workplace – at least about the big issues – are now so “old-fashioned”, so “five years ago”, that we can just forget them and concentrate on more important things, like cheesy comments in hair salons. I know many women who beg to differ with you on that one.

And by the way I said I was the snowflake – for ranting about her being a snowflake. Get it?

Róisín: For now, I’m going to ignore the fact you took exception to my comment that you look like a TikToker and then proceeded to lecture me about self-deprecation, because truly there aren’t enough hours in the day. (Although side note: there are some great haircuts on TikTok, so be open-minded! You might end up learning some new dance moves too.)
I would argue, however, that millennials appreciate irony just as much as any other generation. There’s irony in the fact our culture is moving on so much that the boomer is becoming the snowflake, right? That’s ironic, you said so yourself!
Rather than us bickering in circles I’ve devised a simple way for you to avoid such micro-aggressions and/or harmless jokes (delete where necessary) in future. Maybe you’d be happier going to a more age-and gender-appropriate salon where there’s absolutely no danger of your humour being misconstrued. In fact, here’s a challenge for you: next time you’re having your hair cut, ask for the oldest, male-est barber in the place and make a joke about how you look like Brad Pitt when you’re naked. I personally would love to see how he would react.

Journalist Cosmo Landesman believes that journalists should not bore readers with lists of publications they’ve written for or books they’ve published

Róisín Lanigan disagrees! She is a writer and editor based in London. She is Editor at i-D and her work has appeared in VICE, The Atlantic, New Statesman and Prospect Magazine. In 2020 she was the recipient of the BPA First Novel Prize for her debut novel “Brotherhood”



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