Can you discriminate when making jokes about someone being bald?

Baldness and Discrimination

Gary Lineker has recently drawn official complaints to the BBC and suffered a huge backlash on social media over a remark he made at the start of a recent episode of Match of the Day.

The joke, if it can be called such, was at the expense of his Match of the Day co-hosts Alan Shearer and Danny Murphy.

Mr Lineker said that; ‘It’s [been] a strong start to the Premier League season…Real hair-raising times…unless you’re Alan Shearer and Danny Murphy.’

The camera then panned to the two pundits, neither sporting a single hair under the glaring lights; but they were laughing and shaking their heads in despair.

Many watchers immediately complained that the joke was demeaning; humiliating and generally outdated. It is a similar debate to the issue of jokes about ginger hair that has also recently garnered publicity.

However, many have criticised the complaints saying that we are losing our sense of humour and asking whether this is this generation that will fail to understand the concept of a joke.

However, the mere fact of the existence of the argument raises the question of whether it is wrong to make such jokes – do we discriminate against baldness, and bald men in particular, and should the law protect bald men from such jokes?

Do we discriminate against baldness?

Many readers will already appreciate that, upon consideration, there certainly appears to be a stigma around male baldness that still exists in society.

However, whether it’s actors Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jason Statham or business titans Jeff Bezos or Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein, there is no shortage of men in the spotlight who are bald. Forget wigs, hairpieces or toupees to hide their baldness (Donald Trump), all of them have shaved heads that draw attention to, rather than disguise, their sparse locks.

Yet for many hair (or a lack of it), is more than a question of vanity but is a source of real emotional distress, causing men to lose confidence in all aspects of their life. Increasing representations of physical perfection for men in the media have led many men to seek self-esteem in their appearance but men’s concerns about balding appear to go back thousands of years. Baldness was said to be an obsession of Julius Caesar and cures for hair loss abound in history. For example, the ancient Greek medic Hippocrates’s “cure” involved pigeon droppings mixed with horseradish, cumin and nettles. This has changed to more ‘scientific’ hair replacement and transplant procedures.

Understandably then, jokes about baldness could cause humiliation and could be seen as degrading.

Is baldness a protected characteristic capable of being protected and if not, should it be?

At the time of writing, baldness itself is not a protected characteristic, and therefore protected by the Equality Act from discrimination. However, as this argument shows, there are points to consider that when making what one might consider an innocent joke, you are in fact being discriminatory.

Baldness may be a symptom of a disability or something which arises from a disability, which is a protected characteristic. Making jokes about baldness, which arises from someone’s disability such as cancer treatment, could well be harassment or discrimination. Male Pattern Baldness may one day be considered a disability itself, particularly as it can have such devastating effects on levels of anxiety and depression and can therefore affect all areas of a man’s life.

Baldness is also predominately a male issue. Therefore, any less or unfavourable treatment or detriment, based on baldness, could potentially be cited as an example of indirect sex discrimination.  For example, a nightclub that refuses bald people could be indirectly discriminating against men because they are predominately the bald people, and therefore the policy will affect them the most. There is also often an image of a bald man as being more aggressive such as the Bruce Willis or Jason Statham, both action heroes. Perhaps comments about being bald if the person is also homosexual, could also be linked to discrimination based on sexuality.

Baldness in men is also linked to age, and therefore jokes about baldness could be an example of age discrimination. We must appreciate that when a man loses his hair, one of the immediate messages is that he is perhaps ageing. And usually this is something people don’t want. It goes along with superficiality and appearance in society. Again therefore, using the example of a nightclub banning bald people, could indirectly discriminate against the older clubbers.

Baldness or having a shaved head, can also be a sign of religious belief. For example, many Buddhists shave their heads, while Muslim men have the choice of shaving their head after performing Umrah and Hajj, following the ancient tradition of committing as a slave to Allah. If you are discriminated against because of this therefore, there is a high risk that it could amount to some form of discrimination under the Equality Act.

Luckily for Mr Lineker, he was with friends and he got away with his ‘banter’. His friends did not seem offended, although they both looked as though they had heard it all before. However, in some contexts, this is far more serious than a bit of banter between friends. Further, he is a high-profile celebrity, with a very large pay packet as the public now well know, and was presenting a live program watched by children, and lots of men, many of whom will be bald and/or balding.

Interestingly, the BBC has refused to comment on whether it is investigating Lineker’s joke.

We will have to wait and see if there is any reprimand imposed by the BBC, and if there is any enthusiasm to legislate or if there is ever a claimant who is able to pursue this matter through the tribunals.

Photo by Sholto Ramsay on Unsplash

This article was written and researched by Albert Bargery, Solicitor at our Isle of Wight Office. Albert BargeryAlbert advises employers and employees on the Isle of Wight and throughout the UK. You can contact Albert by email: [email protected]

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The information contained in this blog post is provided for guidance and is a snapshot of the law at the time it is written. It is provided for your information only and should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice that it specific to your particular circumstances.

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