Another explanation for the gender line in hairstyling?

Posted in Barbershop at 7:43 pm by Benjamin Ross

Why is hairstyling such a male dominated industry in China?

Hairstyling has been a male-majority industry since I first started observing it back in 2007. But in recent years women in hairstyling have gone from a minority to a rarity, as the industry is increasingly staffed exclusively by males. One (speculative) reason for this is the growth of the manicure/pedicure industry. Employees in the nail industry fit an almost identical social profile to those in hairstyling, and often work in shops under the same ownership. But the industry also has more of a tendency to expand and contract based on fashion trends. And as one might assume, there are very few men working in nail salons.

Yanyan is an 18-year-old girl from Inner Mongolia who has been working as a hair washer/trainee in a small barbershop in Beijing. I first contacted her on the Internet, and on one of her days off we met up for lunch. Of the 10 employees in her barbershop, she is the only girl. This does come with perks. Yanyan has her own small room in the “dormitory” (an apartment rented by the owner to house employees), while the male employees are all crowded together into the other. This is a unique opportunity for privacy unavailable to most barbershop workers who both work and live in constant confined quarters with their colleagues.

Before migrating to Beijing to train to be a hairstylist, Yanyan had worked in a nail salon in her hometown. There is little employee crossover between hairstyling and nails, and so I wanted to pick her brain on why there is such the gender divide in the former industry. I don’t recall her exact words, so I’ll paraphrase.

The nail industry is inherently seasonal and unstable. It’s subject to trends. Sometimes it’s trendy for girls to have their nails done, and sometimes less so. For example, there are always going to be more girls having their nails done when the weather is nice, in the summer. Sometimes it isn’t even seasonal, just what’s in at that time. Because of this, you can make more money in a busy month than you ever would as a hairstylist. But then there are months where it’s completely dead. You may have very little income at all, or even get laid off. It’s too unpredictable.

Hairstyling is different. People’s hair is always growing. Sure, there are trends with dyes and perms, but as long as people’s hair continues to grow, they will continue to need haircuts. It’s just a more stable job, even if you make less than you would doing nails.

The thing about women in China is that they don’t have the same responsibilities as men. They don’t need to provide for a family, save for an apartment, things like that. They can deal with the inconsistency of the income. Therefore, the unpredictable nature of the nail industry is more suitable for women.

This connection between gender expectations and occupations reminded me of another discussion I had with my friend Fei Fei, a college-educated, middle-class Chinese woman in her late 20’s who works as a landscape architect. We had been discussing restaurants, and she had mentioned that she regularly ate expensive meals (over 100 RMB) in restaurants with her girlfriends. However, for her male friends this was a less regular occasion. “Men in China are under more financial pressure than women,” she told me. They are expected to purchase an apartment before getting married, and to have money saved. Women are aware that much of this responsibility rests on the men they will eventually marry, and so they are more free to spend their earnings on entertainment, such as dining out in expensive restaurants.”

Although China has seen rapid change since the Opening Up in the early 1980’s, gender roles remain entrenched from the bottom of the working class all the way up the stratification ladder. In fact, it could be argued that China’s market transition has further solidified gender roles over the past several decades. (Obliterating gender disparities was a major, and relatively successful, initiative under the golden years of Socialism from the 50’s to the 70s).

With children serving as the de facto system of social security in modern times, failure to reproduce and carry on the family line is generally viewed as deviant among Chinese society. The pressure to get married and have a child has been further exasperated by the One Child Policy, as today the majority of China’s eligible bachelors and bachelorettes do not have siblings.

With rising housing prices and increasing consumerism, Chinese men are under more pressure than ever to obtain the financial security necessary to get married. And the societal norms which dictate men must buy an apartment before getting married place the financial onus on the male when a couple is looking to tie the know. For men, a stable job is key to fulfilling the obligation to marry and reproduce. For women, there is more freedom to float between jobs, and follow passions and trends, or choose a less stable career…such as doing nails.

This is of course a gross over-generalization of many complex social processes, which is why it’s in a blog post, not an academic paper. But I’d be curious to hear any readers’ take on gender divisions of labor in the service industry as I dig further into the issue.



Confucius Sells Out

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 5:49 pm by Benjamin Ross

As part of my post as TA for the UChicago Beijing study abroad program, we take our students on weekly “field trips.” Once a term, we take them on an overnight trip outside of Beijing. This year we went to Shandong; one day in Jinan and one day in Qufu. The latter is a non-descript small town which has little to differentiate it from the thousands of other small urban settlements scattered across the Middle Kingdom…except for its most famous citizen, the great Master Kong, commonly known as “Confucius.”

I had visited Qufu on my own in 2008, and recalled the many ways in which Confucius, and his family name (Kong) have been commercialized and commodified in Qufu. This time, I decided to catalog them:

Confucius Specialty Food Supermarket
Confucius Cuisine Restaurant (Confucius “special dishes” listed on sign)
Menu: Green Onion Fried Pancakes, Confucius Tofu, Confucius’ Sauce Chicken, Confucius’ Sauce Pork
Confucius’ crispy fried pancakes
The Confucius Family Distillery Flagship Store
…and now we have Confucius fans
Confucius chotchkies
Confucius desk ornaments…sold side by side with Communist Party leaders
life-sized hand-carved wooden statues of Confucius
The Kong Family’s Economic and Affordable Special Restaurant

“Refined fragrance Confucius family; Chinese quality, world value”

Peanut Crisp: Official Snack of the 2013 Qufu International Confucius Cultural Festival
Confucian decorative artisanal products
more Confucian food

Three Confucian Treasures, from Confucius’ 74th generation descendents

Confucius Family Homestyle Banquet
Confucius Family Handmade Fried Pancake Shop
Confucius Family Liquor Distribution Center: Famous Cigarettes and Liquor, Confucius Luxury Goods Supermarket
Three Kongs Business Hotel
even more liquor – “Confucius’ Private Stash”

Seemed like roughly half of the people I met in Qufu claimed to be a descendent of Confucius.  Looks like at very least they are benefiting quite well off the royalties…Too bad for all of you who were into Confucius, before it got cool.



Manicures and High Heels: A Service Industry Divided by Gender

Posted in Barbershop at 9:51 am by Benjamin Ross

Adjacent to Meng’s barbershop in Beijing is a 美甲 (“beautiful nails”) shop.  The shop, under the same ownership as the barbershop, performs manicures, pedicures, and eyebrow threading.  As rent costs have risen in China, the hair and nail industries are increasingly merging together both organizationally and spatially, often within the same storefront.  In the case of this particular nail shop, it is under the same ownership as the adjacent barbershop, but occupies a much smaller storefront.

As is the case with most Chinese nail salons, the staff is entirely female.  This is in contrast to the barbershop which is almost entirely staffed by men.  Two of my female students wanted to get manicures last week, and I used this as an excuse to spend some time in this otherwise female dominated space.

There were three employees working the day we visited the nail salon.  All were from Anhui, and had known each other back home.  The oldest one (age 24) had come to Beijing first, and later had recruited her friends to work at the salon as well.  After schmoozing for fifteen minutes, I asked a question I’ve been thinking about a lot of late:

Ben:  “I understand why your profession is so dominated by women, but why are there so few female hairstylists in China?”

Employee:  “Hairstyling is too tiring (累) for women.”

Ben:  “Too tiring for women??”

Employee:  “Yeah, you have to stand all day.  In this job (nails) you don’t have to stand.”

Ben:  “So women can’t stand all day, but men can?”

Employee:  (pointing at her feet, with a look of “duhhh, you idiot” on her face)  “Look at these.  Women have to wear high-heels to work.  You can’t have a job where you stand all day when you’re wearing high-heels.”

Ben:  “Is that a job requirement that women have to wear high-heels?”

Employee:  “No, it isn’t a requirement.  But you know how it is.  Women just need to wear heels.  So we don’t want to work as hairstylists all day where you have to stand.  We’d rather do nails.  It’s much more comfortable to sit in heels than to stand.”  (I notice all three employees are wearing tall, pointy high heels.)

So there you go.  For the sake of my dissertation, I hope the answer to my question may be more nuanced.  But never underestimate the power of uncomfortable footwear…and the societal pressures that dictate one gender must wear them in certain situations.



Tipping?? There’s no tipping in China! Or is there?

Posted in Barbershop at 5:09 pm by Benjamin Ross

The other day I took one of my students to Meng’s barbershop for a haircut.  As my student was getting washed up, I was discussing the service industry with Kang, one of Meng’s barber colleagues.  He asked me a question I get asked a lot:

“What is the biggest difference between cutting hair in the US and cutting hair in China?”

Depending on what pops into my mind first, I have four or five different ways to answer this question.  I opted for one of the simpler ones.  “Tips.”

Tipping in China, generally speaking, does not exist  Whether you are dining in a restaurant, ordering a beer, being massaged, riding a taxi, having furniture delivered, or choosing a wine pairing for your lobster, the price listed is the price you pay.  Adding an extra bit of cash on top, no matter big or small, is just…well….awkward.  If anything, it may even be construed as a bribe.  Instead, many service industry workers are paid a “提成,” a commission on services performed.  In barbershops, this usually ranges between around 30 and 40% of the cost paid by the customer.

When Kang asked me how tipping works in an American barbershop, I replied “Say a haircut is $15.  You might give your barber anywhere from $17 to $20 and tell him to keep the change.  Not giving a tip would indicate that you were unsatisfied.”

This is when things got a little weird.  Kang pointed over to my student, who was now seated in the barber chair as Meng was examining his head, and jokingly said, “Hey, tell your student to give Meng a tip.”  Immediately, Meng scowled at Kang and gave him a hand gesture indicating “Shut the F up!”

A little background/disclosure:  I’ve been enlisting the help of my students as props in my ethnography.  Of our 15 students from UChicago, the majority have limited Chinese skills.  I’ve been offering to escort them to local barbershops as needed, and act as their interpreter.  This serves the symbiotic purpose of 1) providing me with excuses to hang out in barbershops and 2) dramatically increases the chance of students procuring decent haircuts.  Lately I’ve been directing many of my students to Meng.  He’s a talkative friendly guy who has been sharing with me many details about the industry and the life of migrants.  He also has gives a damn good Western-style haircut.

Even though Kang was joking when he suggested I tell my student to tip Meng, the proposition was awkward enough that Meng felt threatened.  What he was probably thinking but not saying out loud was “Don’t offend this American guy.  He’s been bringing me a solid flow of new customers.  I got a good thing going on here.  Don’t screw it up!”  And in a commission-based system, more customers requesting his services means more take-home pay for Meng.

When the dust settled and Meng was engrossed in my student’s new hairdo, I asked Kang about tipping in China, even though I assumed I knew what the answer would be.  His reply surprised me.

“We actually get tipped quite a bit here, from foreigners.”

I was shocked!  Tipping?  In China?  “No tipping” is usually the first thing listed on every “A Westerner’s Guide to China” blog post or travel book.  It’s right up there with “Never accept a business card with only one hand” and “Don’t leave your chopsticks upright in your rice bowl.”  You just don’t do it.

Now I should point out that Meng’s barbershop is located within walking distance of Renmin University where many foreign students reside.  In one month, Meng probably cuts more foreigners’ hair than a Fuzhou barber would in a lifetime.  Even so, the tipping still struck me as odd.  I asked Kang to clarify.

“Yeah, well you know Chinese people don’t tip, but we get a decent number of foreigners coming in here, mostly students from Renmin, and I’d say more often than not, they tip.  It’s like bonus money for us, so why not?” he said with a grin.

Personally, I’m not a fan of tipping, with the possible exception of a restaurant context.  As a matter of principle, I’ve always felt paying employees’ fair wages should be the responsibility of the business owner, not the moral imperative of the customer.  And with a fair commission system in place, workers are both incentivized and rewarded for a job well done.  In my country (the US) tipping has become such an institution that it is no longer even a reflection of the service performed, but simply a token ritual, completely divorced from its original purpose.

But could this be indicative of an emerging trend in the Chinese service industry?  If so, what would be the impetus for an emerging culture of tipping in the Middle Kingdom?  Social scientists frequently debate the influence of exogenous factors (i.e. culture imported from abroad) versus shocks from within (rising costs of living) in their explanations of social phenomena.  If I had to guess, I don’t see the institution of tipping gaining traction anytime soon in China.  But I can envision how it could begin to stick in large markets (i.e. Beijing, Shanghai) with their high concentrations of Western clientele…and presumably spread outward from there.



Migrant Barbers and the Marriage Squeeze

Posted in Barbershop at 11:14 am by Benjamin Ross

Today I was having my haircut in a barbershop I’ve been frequenting in Beijing. I was chatting with my barber Meng, a 21-year-old migrant from Shaanxi when our conversation turned toward love and romance. After he inquired about my personal situation, I asked him about his.

Ben: Do you have a girlfriend?
Meng: Yeah, I have a girlfriend.
Ben: Where’s she from? What’s she do?
Meng: We’re both from the same town in Shaanxi. She lives in Beijing as well, doing manicures. She works on the other side of town because my boss won’t allow us to work together (there’s a nail shop with the same ownership attached to the barbershop).
Ben: How long have you been together?
Meng: 3 years
Ben: Have you thought about marriage?
Meng: Of course, but there’s a problem, her family doesn’t approve.

This is not an uncommon situation in China. Traditionally, parents have the final say when it comes to their children’s marriage choices. Often it’s matters of money, occupation, and social class which are evoked as reasons for disapproval.

Ben: What’s the issue?
Meng: Well, her mom wants me to join their family?
Ben: Hmm, that’s strange.
Meng: Yeah, it is. There’s no way my parents would agree with me joining my wife’s family, rather than her joining ours.
Ben: So what are you gonna do?
Meng: Who knows? We’re basically screwed, I guess.

China is currently in the midst of a major demographic turning point: the coming of marriage age of the One Child generation. Although begun in the early 1980’s, it was not until the 90’s that the One Child Policy went into full effect. Two decades later, we are beginning to feel the effects of the one child cohort on the marriage market. With children still constituting the primary form of social security in China, parents (especially those of single daughters) are becoming increasingly stingy in their demands for marriage.

The traditional pattern for Chinese families has been for daughters to marry into their husband’s family. Their filial responsibilities are then towards their married family, not their natal one. When a family has multiple children, it is expected that there daughters will marry out, while their sons will bring wives into the family. But in an age where most families have only one child, all bets are off. By allowing their daughter to marry off into Meng’s family, his girlfriend’s parents may be saying goodbye to their only shot at cushy retirement package. Now if Meng had been wealthier or of a higher social class, the apprehension to “marry away” their daughter may have been attenuated by the favorable “conditions” it would have brought. But with Meng, like his girlfriend, being a migrant laborer, there isn’t much he can bring to the table in terms of benefits for his perspective in-laws. Thus their demands that he join them, rather than the other way around, which would have followed tradition. When we consider that among ages 20-24 Chinese men outnumber women 113 to 100 (and likely even higher among migrant workers), marriage prospects become even more bleak. In a society in which norms dictate a failure to marry as deviant, this presents a major conundrum for male migrant men. Hopefully Meng will be able to find a way around this predicament.

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