What's the matter with hairdressing?

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The Independent Online

"How's Charlotte getting on?" I asked a friend whose daughter is studying marine engineering at university. Last time I talked to Charlotte, she was designing an artificial barrier reef with sheltered accommodation for conger- eels. "Oh, didn't you know? She's switched courses," said my friend. "She's given up marine engineering. She's doing midwifery."

Next time I run into Tessa Jowell, Minister for Women, I'll mention Charlotte's change of heart. Ms Jowell, if you remember, was up in arms earlier this week because girls leaving school are not being encouraged to achieve their full potential and become high-flyers. She then went on to make some rather tactless remarks about girls wanting to be hairdressers and childminders, which had crimpers and colourists up and down the land howling with fury, and quite right, too.

What's wrong with wanting to be a hairdresser or nanny or any of the other jobs that Ms Jowell reckons are gender-stereotypical? Besides, isn't her own job the most gender-stereotyped of all? Career adviser - now there's a difficult job. Gone are the days when you simply directed the school-leaver to a university grants application form, assuring him/her that a good degree would guarantee a good job. Things are different. They've done away with university grants and 5,000 graduates apply for every half-decent job offered in the appointments pages.

I was talking to a publisher friend recently who said that last time they advertised for an Assistant Editor at a starting salary most junior shampooists would sniff at, they got well over 2,000 replies. In the end, they whittled down the field by binning all the letters that didn't have a first-class stamp.

If you don't pass your A-levels and go to university, you'll end up as a shop assistant, my friend used to threaten her rebellious 16-year-old daughter. "But I want to be a shop assistant!" protested Rachel. "I love it. I love wrapping things up in tissue paper and knowing how to work the till."

Since it was her mother who originally encouraged her to get a Saturday job in Dorothy Perkins, there was little she could say to this. Rachel passed her exams, declined to go to university and instead took a job in a shop in the King's Road. Now, at 18, she sells pink pony- skin sandals to supermodels for pounds 350, pounds 200 T-shirts to their pop star boyfriends who invite her to clubs, and is generally having a ball. It may not be Ms Jowell's idea of high-flying but to a shiny-eyed 18-year-old its nirvana with knobs on.

It's not a minister for women we need, it's a minister for men or, more precisely, for boys. Ms Jowell objects to girls saying "I want to be a hairdresser", but at least they're being positive. Most of the teenage boys I come across, including my own sons, have absolutely no idea what they want to do after school, except become strikers for Man United. Besides, hasn't Ms Jowell got her wires crossed? We are constantly being told how much better girls are academically than boys, how they've overtaken their male counterparts at the Bar, in medicine, even in the City.

On second thoughts, I can see that appointing a Minister for Boys might be playing into Mr Mugabe's hands. Maybe it's a Minister for Hairdressers we need, they are clearly a misunderstood breed.

Personally, I'd be delighted if more girls would go into hairdressing because I'm fed up with having my hair inexpertly washed by youths with acne who don't scrub hard enough and never get the soap out properly. Hairdressing salons in London are top-heavy with men. Apart from the soap, they're not half as good to chat to, being far too busy talking over your head to the stylist next door about Harley Davidson bikes.

Give me an old-fashioned hairdresser full of biddies in pink nylon overalls who will scrub your scalp till it stings and talk about operations and the new freezer cabinet at Sainsbury's. That's my idea of job-fulfillment.