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Gender-based pricing: why it costs more to be a woman

Yahoo Finance
Yahoo Finance

Women usually pay more for a haircut than men. More to dry clean their clothes. And also more for grooming products like deodorant and razors. The difference in pricing, called gender price discrimination -- is so common many people don’t realize that in some places it’s illegal.

“Gender price discrimination is where companies or services charge different rates for no other reason that someone is a man or woman,” says Michael Cone, a partner at the law firm FisherBroyles. Cone is a trade lawyer who’s been studying gender price discrimination for over a decade.
There are no federal laws that outlaw this practice but they are policed on the state and local levels. California outlawed the practice in 1996 after a state study found a “gender tax” cost women approximately $1,351 more annually.

In New York City, which also prohibits gender pricing, the Department of Consumer Affairs handed out 361 violations in 2012, 195 violations in 2013 and more than 200 in 2014. A handful of other areas around the country also have gender pricing laws. Florida’s Miami-Dade County has an ordinance that prohibits gender-based pricing for dry cleaning, but includes the caveat: “However, a business is permitted to charge a different price if the goods or services involve more time, difficulty or cost. In other words, consideration must be given to the quality and complexity of the goods or services to determine whether or not you have been discriminated against.”

“Ladies’ Night” discounts – which, of course, give women a break on bar entry fees and drinks – have been banned in New Jersey since 2004, but a Saturday night stroll at the Jersey Shore will prove this often goes overlooked. “The laws are there but it’s up to the government to enforce them,” Cone says. The paltry penalties companies pay for gender pricing is one reason laws are often ignored. First-time offenders in New York City can be fined as little as $50.

What are common examples of gender price discrimination?

A quick online search revealed price differences for similar products marketed to women and men. Degree deodorant at Walmart was $3.88 for women, $2.47 for men. Walgreens had a 3-pack of Gillette razors at $11.99 for women and $10.99 for men. And Gap had women paying $69.95 for the same fit of jeans versus $59.95 for men. 

“We can go online and we can find different pricing,” says Cone. “It’s the norm and unfortunately it’s become the expectation.” While women are the most common victims of gender pricing, for certain kinds of services, men typically pay more – like manicures, for instance – because they supposedly require more work.
The same argument can be made for women’s haircuts costing more. “Hairdressers may have legitimate claim to charging women more, but only if their cuts require more time, skill, or effort for a more demanding set of customers,” The Atlantic wrote last year.

A long history of price discrimination

Fifteen years ago Cone was researching tariffs for a footwear importer. He discovered men’s shoes were taxed at 8.5%, compared to women’s shoes at 10% – a practice still in effect today according to the United States International Trade Commission. But tariffs for men's clothes, including swimwear and gloves, are taxed higher than women’s. “I looked at the page and I immediately knew it was wrong,” he says.

Cone worked for seven years to bring a case to the Supreme Court. And even with over 100 companies joining the lawsuit, lawyers argued unsuccessfully for the abolition of different tariffs for men’s and women’s clothing. Cone and his co-plaintiffs didn’t receive any money from the government for what they argued were unfair tariffs.

A 2010 study by Consumer Reports found that women paid higher prices for shaving cream, antiperspirant, pain reliever, eye revitalizer, body wash and razor blades. Consumer Reports found “that products directed at women—through packaging, description, or name—might cost up to 50% more than similar products for men.” But the report also cited spokespeople who said some women’s products cost more to manufacture, used different formulations or were assigned higher prices by retailers.

In a 2011 study researchers at The University of Central Florida found examples of gender price discrimination. “Our research suggests that although the differences are not uniform across types of services or products, women do tend to pay more than men for certain types of services and products, especially those that provide the most visible evidence of gendering the body,” they wrote.

More recently, through a popular blog by a group of French activists – calling themselves Georgette Sand (a play on the 19th century French author George Sand, who used a male pseudonym) – has been highlighting price differences to persuade the French Finance Ministry to investigate gender price discrimination.

What can you do?

While the metrics they use may be different, many organizations have come to the conclusion that it costs more to be a woman, plain and simple. Consumer Reports advises consumers to ignore labels and just buy the cheaper version – no matter what kind of packaging that deodorant comes in.

“Women, for example, can vote with their purse and their pen,” Cone said. He suggests women buy blue razors priced lower than pink razors, writing to corporate and government officials and asking for the men’s price of a haircut at their next salon visit.

A female employee at Yahoo recently asked for the men’s price of a haircut at a New York City salon advertising different prices for men’s and women’s haircuts. Even after explaining the law, she was told that she would be charged the higher price.

“Nothing is going to change unless we’re vocal and we fight it,” Cone says, “We have to work together to do that.”