Opinion
25 November 2021

A woman walks into a barber shop

What’s the difference between a hairdresser and a barber?

It’s bustling. Six barbers, wearing long brown aprons, have clients in chairs. Two men are waiting for haircuts when I walk in.

The décor is French-inspired. There are huge faux mahogany gilded mirrors. An array of clippers and brushes are laid out on the antique-style marbled topped washstands.

The barbers wear work boots, jeans, and T-shirts under their aprons, which make them look more like farriers about to shoe a horse than barbers about to cut hair.

It takes a while for someone to greet me and confirm someone can cut my hair. While the head barber is polite, I feel self-conscious being the only woman in a typically male-dominated space.

I sit in the huge barber’s chair. A neck strip is snapped around my neck. It feels a little suffocating.

My hair is cut dry, rather than washed. The barber sprays water on my hair occasionally as he cuts.

He uses clippers and scissors, but doesn’t layer the top section of my hair as much.

While he does blow-dry my hair at the end, it’s not styled.

The result isn’t radically different to my usual treatment.

I’ve had my hair cut in a short androgenous style for years and joked with friends that I may as well go to a barber. It would be cheaper, for one thing.

I paid $42 for my barber cut, while my usual hairdresser costs $102.

What’s the difference between hairdressers and barbers?

Hair and Barber New Zealand executive chair Niq James has both hairdressing and barbering qualifications.

“Barbers are taught to perform short, traditionally masculine strong shapes with square lines and silhouettes using clippers and scissors,” he said.

Barbers don’t learn how to cut female styles, James said, whereas hairdressers are trained to handle longer hair with softer shapes, along with colour and perming skills.

He said most barbers don’t colour or perm hair.

Would I go back?

While I saved $60 on my haircut, I missed the extras I usually get at my hairdressers. Getting my hair washed and having a scalp massage is a lovely treat.

There wasn’t much conversation, either. One barber attempted to start a conversation about the new Matrix movie, but it fell flat. While it takes time to build a rapport with a stylist, I would’ve expected a bit more chit-chat from a new hairdresser.

But, on the flipside, my colleague Chris said the lack of conversation is one of his favourite things about going to a barber.

Would I go back? If I was strapped for cash and just needed a quick tidy-up, yes. But I’m happy to pay a premium to still enjoy the pampering I get at my usual stylist.

Why are women’s cuts more expensive at salons?

When you walk into a salon or check prices online, you’ll likely see different prices for men and women’s cuts.

We searched online for prices at 15 salons in Wellington. Fourteen salons had gendered pricing. A men’s cut and style was $38 cheaper on average.

James said in the late 1980s and early 90s some New Zealand salons used unisex pricing. The cost of a cut was fixed, but any extras – say a blow wave or styling product – were then added on to the final price.

“It was like a pick and mix situation,” James said.

But it caused more problems than it solved.

“Clients didn’t understand the system and were charged more than they expected. After that, hairdressers went back to the gendered model,” James said.

You can’t be charged more for a service just because of your gender. However, there are grounds for different pricing if more skill is needed to perform the service.

Vivo Hair and Beauty charges clients on time and the stylist’s skills, rather than gender, co-founder Lynden Mason said.

“We think it means people get what they’re paying for in terms of expertise and the time taken,” Mason said.

At Vivo, a 30-minute appointment with a junior stylist costs $45-50 on average. The same time with a senior stylist sets you back between $55-$80.

However, most appointments are for 45 minutes, Lynden said.

Vivo changed its pricing from traditional women’s and men’s rates to gender-neutral pricing in February across all its 90 salons.

“We probably lost a few male clients,” because in the old system “men were actually getting a pretty sweet deal” with cheaper cuts, Lynden said.

Tips for getting the cut you want

Hair’s our tips to make sure you’re not foiled at your next appointment:

  • Book a free consultation with your stylist to discuss the style you want and how much you can afford.
  • If you think your stylist didn’t perform their job with reasonable care and skill, go back and ask them to put it right.
  • If your do-up has been substantially botched up, you have grounds to ask for your money back.

Member comments

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Alison A.
27 Nov 2021
Out of place?

My hair is a short 'messy' style and if I am travelling, I often go to barbers I haven't used before, as it's cheaper and I don't have to make an appointment. When approaching a barber, I always ask first if they will cut a woman's hair. My success rate is about 60%. Usually, they are honest and will just say that they don't feel comfortable doing a 'woman's' hairstyle. Barber haircuts are adequate for me because of my hairstyle, but for at least every third haircut, I go back to my favorite stylist, as she adds all the nuances that barbers may overlook. I have had barber cuts in Cairo, Indonesia, Manila and Sweden and they've all been fine!