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Calling a Man ‘Bald’ Isn’t Sexual Harassment

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Everybody relax. It’s still safe to say “bald” in the workplace. News reports to the contrary notwithstanding, a UK employment tribunal didn’t hold last week that using the word is sexual harassment. What the panel did hold, however, was sufficiently nit-picky that it might scare people away from a perfectly good word. The wordsmith in me is alarmed.

Here’s the case in short: During a nasty argument over repairing machines on the factory floor, one employee called another a “bald c—” ... and the supervisor did nothing about it. The employee who suffered the insult was later discharged and filed a formal complaint. Last week, he won.

The three members of the Employment Tribunal ignored the word my editor requires me to express with a dash. Instead they found “a connection between the word ‘bald’ on the one hand and the protected characteristic of sex on the other.” Why? Because men are far more likely than women tend to lose their cranial hair. Thus the insult “created an intimidating etc [sic] environment” and “was done for that purpose.”

Thus the holding is narrow, applying only in the context of an angry argument where “bald” is (1) directed at a male and (2) with the intention of intimidating. Yet even if there was intimidation, it’s hard to imagine that “bald” — rather than the unprintable word with which it was coupled — was the source. A bit of wordsmithery will help explain why.

Although the use of “bald” as an insult can be traced at least to the Hebrew Bible, where the young men who taunt the prophet Elisha as a “bald-head” wind up being mauled by bears, I’ve found no source that classifies “bald” as derogatory or offensive.

True, the now-obsolete term “bald-headed row” is attested from at least the 1880s, after the supposed tendency of older men to sit in the front row of a burlesque house, so that they might (says the Dictionary of American Slang) “ogle women.” In 1924, the New York Times reported that a German theater owner took advantage of this stereotype by selling seats near the stage to bald men only, but in such a pattern that those seated higher up “could plainly distinguish the outlines of a bird formed by the shiny-pated men sitting contentedly below and wondering what all the laughing was about.”

Mockery of that sort has gone out of style, and even at the time was anything but universal. As the cultural historian Kerry Segrave has noted, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were professions — medicine and academia, among others — where being bald was seen as adding value. When magazines of the era published cartoons featuring chess masters or other geniuses, they were almost always men without cranial hair.

On the other hand, for whatever complex set of cultural reasons, men have long been uneasy about hair loss. A thriving market for “cures” has existed at least since the 19th century.(1) A treatise published in 1917 warned that unless doctors began paying attention to the public’s worries, the treatment of baldness would soon become “the camping ground for the ignorant and dishonest quack.”

Even today, going bald can be mortifying. Around two-thirds of men with hair loss wish they had more hair. The earlier the age at which hair begins to vanish, the larger the psychological distress — perhaps because baldness is widely taken as evidence of aging. And those figures are from studies of men.

Small wonder that treatment for the condition generates $2.6 billion in annual revenue in the U.S. alone. New technologies are being harnessed, including nanomaterials for use in bioprinting. Expensive?  Sure. But one study finds that men suffering pattern baldness would be willing to pay an average of $30,000 for a treatment that will restore their hair.

Moreover, there’s no doubt that negative stereotypes of men with less hair persist.(2) The oddity is that those prejudices contribute little if anything to wage discrimination and don’t seem to affect more general behavior toward the bald. Even in politics, where image is deemed so vital, researchers have found little evidence of electoral bias against men who lack cranial hair. Maybe negative stereotypes are balanced by positive ones: For instance, the bald are generally perceived as more intelligent.

Not only is bald not an insult; it may not even be gendered. Based only on their own experience, the members of the tribunal concluded that “baldness is much more prevalent in men than women.” This common assertion has come under increasing challenge. By many estimates, over half of women in the US will experience “noticeable hair loss.” Although women are often better than men at hiding the condition, their distress tends to be even greater.

So, let’s see. “Bald” isn’t an insult; it’s not a characteristic that causes disadvantage in the workplace; and it’s not confined to men. As narrow as the tribunal’s holding was, the opinion still seems to be wrong about just about everything. 

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(1) Yes, the concern was gendered even then. Charles Henri Leonard, author of popular works on health, suggested in 1879 that women suffered less from hair loss in part because “they are less subject to business worry, and do not heat their heads up continually with hats devoid of ventilation.”

(2) Not always. Men who are perceived to have shaved their heads voluntarily (as opposed to losing their hair) are generally considered more dominant than men with full heads of hair.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A professor of law at Yale University, he is author, most recently, of “Invisible: The Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”

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