Is It Legal To Refuse Someone Service Based On Their Sex?

Is It Legal To Refuse Someone Service Based On Their Sex?
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A Sydney barber is currently awaiting trial by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) after refusing to cut a young girl’s hair. The girl’s mother claims that the barber breached anti-discrimination laws by refusing her service. Is it legal for a business to refuse services based on sex?

According to the report by 9 News, the owner of a Hunter’s Hill barber shop, Sam Rahim, refused to cut the hair of a young girl shortly before Christmas last year. He claims that he politely refused the young girl and her mother service and explained that there were several hairdressers within short walking distance that could help them.

With this, the woman stormed out and filed a complaint against Rahim and the barbershop for discriminating against her daughter, based on her sex. Rahim also claimed that he did not offer to cut the girl’s hair because he is not qualified to do so but this is refuted by her mother.

It’s a story that we’ve seen a number of times before. Back in March, a Darwin-based female barbershop owner also defended her right to refuse service to women and a Brisbane barbershop that had refused service to a female client because of a lease agreement had the lease amended to allow female clientele into the store.

The law states that any business can refuse service to whomever they wish as long as they aren’t in breach of any anti-discrimination laws. Conversely, the HREOC protects customers based on their age, race, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status and discriminating against these people is in breach of parliamentary acts at both a federal and state level.

In this case, where the barber has refused to serve a woman, the relevant act is the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

There are also several circumstances, according to the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science where discriminating may be allowed under anti-discrimination laws. One example they provide is written as so:

When you’re acting in a way that is intended to reduce a disadvantage experienced by people with an attribute that is covered under the law. For example, providing specialised counselling services only for young people or specialised health services for women.

Notably, businesses can also apply for exemptions via the HREOC which allows them to ‘discriminate’ based on gender if they can provide a good reason for it. State based authorities also allow exemptions based on, for instance, personal welfare – and this is why establishments such as female-only gyms are allowed to have only female members and staff.

When applying for those exemptions, the HREOC considers whether or not the exemption is necessary and what terms, conditions and limitations to impose when granting the exemption.

For Mr. Rahim’s barbershop? If he is unqualified to cut a woman’s hair, I think that he is less likely to be reprimanded by the HREOC. However, if he cannot demonstrate that, the anti-discrimination laws are pretty solid. However, as we’ve seen in past disputes with gender-specific barbershops, it’s all a little murky.

Did you just catch yourself wondering if something was legal or not? Let us know and we may be able to answer it in our next Is It Legal? feature.


  • the woman stormed out and filed a complaint against Rahim and the barbershop for discriminating against her daughter, based on her sex
    There’s something more behind that I reckon. No normal person, after a polite conversation, goes running off to file complaints.

  • good grief, this nanny state nonsense is outta hand. it’s a bloody haircut and he didn’t want to do it. do you really want a service, especially a haircut from some who isn’t interested and as such has little desire to do the service well.

  • Refusing to perform a service because you’re 1) not skilled at it, 2) not confident in your ability to do it at a satisfactory level, is not something you can claim as a human right’s violation. This case will be dismissed – and should’ve been before it even got to the HRC.

    • I think you should change the wording to “This case should be dismissed”. While I absolutely agree with you, I don’t have as much faith that the system will “get it right”.

      I feel like the mother is picking a fight here for some other reason. A normal, rational adult would say “fair enough” and go to one of the hairdressers nearby. Hell, I think quite a few rational human beings would have taken one look and said “Men’s barber” and not even have gone in to the shop in the first place.

      I also hope that there is some sort of penalty for making false or vexation claims. Even if it’s just paying for the affected parties costs.

  • Simple solution if he loses.
    Shave all her hair off.
    Not only will she not visit his establishment again, she’ll probably tell her friends not to go there either.

  • Mother takes young girl into a men’s barbershop. Gets offended and files a complaint when she’s told they can’t cut her daughter’s hair despite being recommended several alternatives within walking distance. Seems legit.

    • Clearly intending to make a point.

      Personally I don’t see anything wrong with barbershops catering to men. Given it’s dealing with personal grooming, it satisfies the element of personal welfare.

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