Making your hair business gender inclusive

Over the last 18 months, the British hairdressing industry has taken an uncomfortable look at many of its short-fallings when it comes to inclusivity. Much-needed conversations about training and representation have lead to changes in the approach to Afro hair education, with professionals at every stage of their career admitting that their knowledge of styling and caring for Black hair was inadequate, and taking steps to rectify matters. There is still a lot of work to be done, but the common goal is for every client – no matter their hair texture – to be able to sit in any hairdresser’s chair and feel confident that they will get a great service.

That commitment to providing a welcoming environment to all also extends to gender inclusivity, with a second spotlight now being shone on creating safe salon spaces for members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community. Leading the way is barber Keri Blue, who has founded a project called HAIR HAS NO GENDER UK, designed to educate hair professionals so they can give clients – regardless of their gender identity – haircuts that make them look the way they feel. Keri identifies as non-binary and decided to embark on their mission as a result of their own experiences, and after encountering countless stories of LGBTQIAS2+ people feeling marginalised and intimidated by typical salon and barbershop environments.

My career was born out of sheer frustration. Frustration that I couldn’t get a haircut because of my gender.Keri Blue
“Years ago, when I lived in Brighton, I wanted to get a fade, so I went to a local barbershop,” Keri explains. “I sat waiting for ages only to be refused a haircut simply for being female. They told me ‘We are not insured to do girls’ hair here,” and I left embarrassed and really upset. Within a week, I decided to go to London to train as a barber to stop this from ever happening to anyone else. Since then, I’ve heard of so many people being refused a haircut because of how they identify.”

Keri was forced to re-examine barbering’s relationship with gender once again when they opened up publicly about being non-binary. 

“I was now working full time as a barber and wanted to take the step to be ‘out’… I asked my team at the time to use my correct pronouns (which are they/them) and they simply laughed at me and said: ‘No way, that doesn’t make sense!” I felt disrespected, hurt and insignificant as a human. It was just after this experience that I created the HAIR HAS NO GENDER platform, with the aim of trying to teach barbers to be more inclusive and welcoming to women, girls, non-binary people and the trans community.” says Keri. “I had struggled with my gender identity for a while, and once I found out who I was, HAIR HAS NO GENDER UK became something I had to do. Not just for me, but for the non-binary community that I had embraced as my new tribe.”

Worth the effort

Since founding the initiative, Keri has spread their message on panels and in articles across the UK hair and beauty industry press, as well as appearing on Pride Radio and sharing platforms with high-profile nail artist Marian Newman, The British Beauty Council, and Haircuts 4 Homeless. They are keen to stress that although taking steps to be gender-inclusive is vital, the process doesn’t have to be time consuming, even when people hadn’t previously realised they were doing anything wrong.

A perfect example of this is double Most Wanted award-winning Stag, a company with two salons in the heart of Edinburgh. “When we started Stag it was very traditional and masculine coded – the interior was wood panelled, the colour scheme was navy blue and red, and all the branding and messaging that went out was very traditionally masculine,” say owners Murray McRae and Bridget Honan.

“At the time, I had become frustrated by the tight timeframes and pressure I’d come to associate with cutting women’s hair in a large salon,” adds Murray, “so I decided to dedicate my time to cutting men’s hair until it became my area of expertise. At Stag, I took it a step further and decided I would only cut men’s hair. However, a lot of women and non-binary clients started to come into the shop because they wanted a good haircut without the fuss of a traditional salon. It really went against my values to deny anyone service, so of course I cut their hair and word quickly spread.

“At this point, I decided to create a price list with ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ cuts. But one of our brilliant clients quickly pointed out to me that the whole reason she came to Stag was to get a short back and sides cut without being charged extra just because of her gender. 

Interior shot of Stag salon in Edinburgh

“We then had to really sit down and face the truth of the matter; that the gender-led pricing is outdated and that we needed to come up with a new way of doing things,” he added. “We decided to start charging simply based on the length of the client’s hair, and the amount of time it took us to cut it. We now have three price ranges – short, ear to jaw and everything else.”

Where pricing led, branding followed and Murray and Bridget decided to relaunch the business to better reflect their personal ethos; to be inclusive rather than exclusionary and to share their passion for hair without gendered limitations. “We rebranded the shop and changed it from ‘Stag Barber Co.’ to just ‘Stag’,” they explain. “We got rid of the wood panelling, the red, and navy and instead introduced a non-coded bright yellow as our key colour. We also switched to gender-neutral toilets and our team has undertaken gender diversity awareness training from the brilliant Mermaids charity. The result is a bold and modern shop that better represents visually our values of progressiveness and inclusivity, and our tag line now simply reads ‘Stag: haircuts for everyone’.”

“What has been incredibly helpful has been the trust and feedback from our clients, who always tell us when something works or it doesn’t, or explain to us their experience in the shop as the gender they express,” said Bridget. “Once we’d made our decision, we made a series of Instagram posts and we sent out an email newsletter. Because we were doing the rebrand at the same time, it meant we needed to close the shop for a few weeks for renovation, so this meant we could reopen as the ‘new and improved Stag’.

“We also made sure we communicated really effectively with our staff,” she adds. “We held meetings throughout the process and we took them away for a team-building weekend during the renovations where we all stayed together at a beach house outside Edinburgh. During this time away, we were all able to discuss and create the right kind of message we wanted to communicate with the clients, so we were all on the same page and united in the positivity of this change.”

A year down the line, the new and improved Stag business is thriving, with GNC and trans members of staff having joined the fray.

The feedback has been so positive it’s been a little overwhelming.Murray McRae
“We thought at first that offering gender-free pricing might be niche, but we’ve had the complete opposite experience,” says Murray. “Anyone presenting in the gender binary who maybe doesn’t directly benefit from the changes (for example cis men) are in fact really happy to be part of a progressive, open-minded space that represents their values.”

“We’ve actually had many emails from cis men saying that even they felt uncomfortable in extremely masculine barbershops, and didn’t feel like they could go to a traditional salon,” adds Bridget. “As for our women-identifying and non binary clients, it’s just a game changer. We didn’t realise how big the LGBTQIA2S+ community actually is in Edinburgh and for how long this city has just been crying out for a space like this.”

We see you. We hear you. We welcome you.

Laundry salon in Sheffield also recently took steps to make their business more inclusive by introducing both gender-neutral pricing and a they/them option at the point of booking.

“Laundry has always been a very inclusive salon from the get-go,” explains stylist Marcus Short. “I myself and another guy in the team identify as gay, we have bisexual members of staff and we’ve got a girl that works here who’s pansexual. So it’s always been a very welcoming place for anyone in the community. But after speaking to numerous trans and non binary clients of mine and hearing their horrendous experiences of having being turned away from hair salons and barbers we had to do something so that people never felt like that at Laundry.”

“I felt step-one was to have (additional) pronouns on our booking system so that those clients who don’t identify as one single or binary gender can feel seen and valid here,” Marcus added. “It conveys respect: you tell us your gender identity, we tell you that you’re welcome here. We see you, we hear you.”

To communicate the shift to staff, Marcus, fellow stylist Jenni and salon owner Mitch sat down and explained it to them each individually. “We took the time to answer any questions they had,” Marcus explained. “This alleviated any embarrassment staff members may have had around admitting ‘I don’t know about pronouns’ or saying ‘So what do we do about…?”. It gave us a chance to talk about how it would work practically day to day – that if they saw a change in their columns saying ‘Cut for them: short (hair)’, that’s what it was.”

To make clients aware, Laundry went a step further and shot a whole photographic collection – ‘We are Them’ – celebrating the queer, trans and GNC members of their community.

“We made a conscious effort be heard as as far and wide as we could,” says Marcus. “Staff shared shots from the collection on our Instagram accounts and we spoke to client’s about it all the time. I was also contacted by a Sheffield-based Now Then magazine after they asked their followers to mention inclusive salons for a piece they were doing. I spoke with a journalist and she featured the shoot and my interview in the magazine, which helped spread it even further.

“Clients across the board have voiced their support, saying they’re proud to be part of our salon community and that they love the shoot,” he added. “My trans and non-binary clients have also said they feel more seen and valid than ever at our salon because of this move and have since told their friends who are also genderqueer about us so they too can have the same welcoming and beautiful experience when having their hair done.”

Laundry’s commitment to inclusivity means they now are taking further steps to advocate and provide a safe space for LGBTQIA2S+ people. “I have spoken to a client of mine who works for a LBGTQI+ youth charity called SayIt based in Sheffield about having open evenings for trans-masculine and trans-feminine youths,” said Marcus. “We plan to provide styling tips, be there for their first cuts as they transition and to just let them know Laundry’s a safe, judgment free space that’s there for them.”

Stepping up when you’re self-employed

It’s not just salon spaces where gender inclusivity can be implemented. It’s also important for freelance hairdressers and barbers to consider the language they use and how they market their services. Francys Frear is a freelance hairstylist based in Bournemouth, Dorset who is gender non-conforming (GNC). Francys rents a chair in a salon several days a week as well as offering colour and cuts remotely, and so caters to clients in both a shared public space and more private settings. They believe communicating their openness and inclusivity upfront helps to immediately put clients who may have otherwise felt marginalised at ease.

“I inform people of my pronouns when I introduce myself to them,” Francys explains, “and I take the opportunity to always ask their pronouns too. Online, I use my social media as a platform to show my gender inclusive services and pricing structures, so I present my they/them pronouns in my bio to show that I, myself, do not conform to the gender ideology. This way, clients feel safe to be exactly who they are when entering the salon. I also always communicate my queerness online so other likeminded and GNC individuals feel comfortable contacting me.”

In addition, Francys makes use of the salon environment to subtly signify that everyone is welcome. “I have a variety of inclusive stickers and books laid out, and different types of music playing,” they add. “I find that it’s not only interesting to have a mix, but can be informative, particularly when the art and literature features other GNC humxns. I continuously get complimented on the ambience and experience within the salon too, which is lovely.”

Francys Frear headshot

Francys has found that this approach has helped to naturally foster a more gender inclusive outlook amongst their colleagues and collaborators.

I never judge anyone who steps through the door and I’m always open to dialogue about inclusivity. I’m happy to talk to anyone who wants to discuss it, especially those who don’t seem to quite understand. I do believe conversation is the most important tool to improve inclusivity in the hair industry.Francys Frear

“As a freelancer, I ensure everyone I work around is as educated as possible in gender inclusive services,” they add. “I actually work alongside a cis-gendered man who after enquiring about what it means to be GNC and what makes people comfortable has completely changed his pricing structure, removing any gendered pricing.”

But what if clients or colleagues react differently? “Even if I encounter a slightly difficult client who seems to be not quite as respectful – and trust me, I have had many clients like this! – I will always be friendly and approach the topic in a polite manner,” says Francys. “Communication and generating that understanding is so important, and no one will listen fully if you’re confrontational or always on the defence.

“It may seem like a strange and daunting task to dismantle something that has been so heavily ingrained in hairdressing for years, but this is the path to a broader, more accepting industry.”

Making those first changes

Luckily, as the importance of gender inclusivity has come to the fore in recent years, more and more resources and organisations have become available to help hair business owners adapt and de-gender their approach.

Keri and their business partner, beauty guru Sam Marshall, run a webinar that acts as an introduction to trans awareness in the hair and beauty industry. “It’s perfect for any one looking for advice on making changes and bettering their inclusivity,” they say. After multiple successful sessions, this training recently received recognition from Habia, and bookings are currently open on the HAIR HAS NO GENDER UK website (hairhasnogender.co.uk) for courses commencing in January 2022.

“Making your business gender inclusive is part of being a responsible business owner in today’s climate,” adds Kristin Rankin, founder of The Dresscode Project – an international initiative committed to providing positive, gender-affirming salon services for LGBTQ2S+ clients.

Kristin’s mission was crystallised following a message from a transgender client in 2016 (“She tweeted to my salon after I cut her hair that it was the first time she’s ever had a haircut and felt like a woman,” Kristin explains), and they have since provided education, support and events for hairdressing professionals across the globe.

The Dresscode project has also been pushing to improve gender inclusivity and representation in the consumer hair market.

In 2018, their work caught the eye of consumer giant Pantene UK, who partnered with the organisation to produce the first trans-inclusive primetime advertising campaign for hair products and have maintained their relationship as a sponsor of the initiative ever since.

As of 2021, The Dresscode Project has over 300 salons within its membership community, which also forms a searchable list of safer spaces for LGBTQ2S+ clients. “When it comes to training, we have taken gender diversity and inclusion information and curated it so that it is geared towards everything a hairstylist/barber would go through in their day with a client,” says Kristin.

“When folks contact us (via our website) we are able to provide them with all the tools they require – like an intro package on how to make their business more gender inclusive. This includes information on how to utilise and use pronouns, why gender nonconforming washrooms are so important for your space, and even language and terminologies within the queer community.”

When it comes to implementing gender inclusivity, the message really is: ‘the time is now’. Even if you don’t currently have any clients who identify as LGBTQIAS2+ or GNC, a gender-divided salon or barbershop set up could be driving away a whole host of potential customers, including those who conform to the male/female binary .

“I think the biggest takeaway for us was you really have no idea how many people really need this, until you do it,” concludes Murray. “And you don’t need to worry about alienating your current client base because in our experience, all the clients are on board with it no matter who they are… because who can argue with progress and inclusivity?”

Ready to start the journey to make your hair business more inclusive?
Here are our contributors’ top tips and their answers to some gender-inclusivity FAQs >  

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