The Pink Tax
I have a friend who’s had short hair for a while now--“boy-short” or a “pixie cut”. Last summer she recounted a story to me of when her and her then-boyfriend (who also has short hair) went to a unisex hair salon together and got the exact same haircut. I think my friend said her haircut was even a little shorter than her boyfriend’s, and yet when the two of them went to pay, he was charged $15 before tax and she was charged $25. Why? The pink tax.
The pink tax: “the idea that the ‘female’ versions of the same products and services cost more than the male versions” (Sebastian). It’s unclear as to how long this phenomenon has been taking place, but ever since the 90s, study after study has found women’s products to be priced higher than men’s. A report conducted by New York City that looked at the prices of over 800 products found that on average women and girls paid 7% more for toys and accessories, 4% more for children’s clothing, 8% more for adult clothing, 13-18% more for personal care products, and 8% more for senior/home health care products (Elliott). The study showed that overall, women are paying more 42% of the time, or in 30 out of 35 categories surveyed (Duffin). A news program in Atlanta compared razors, shaving cream, deodorant, and face cleansers for men and women, and found women’s products cost on average 4USD more than men’s (Elliott). In 2010, Consumer Reports looked at price disparities in gendered products and found that women’s products could be up to 50% more expensive than men’s (Sebastian). In the 90s, California did a study on gender-based pricing and estimated women end up spending more than an extra 1,300USD each year (Sebastian). In Britain, this issue was raised to Parliament after an investigation done by The Times found women could be paying close to twice what men were paying for identical products (Sebastian). Women have also been found to be charged more for dry cleaning, haircuts, vehicle maintenance, car insurance, and even medical insurance (Elliott).
The majority of the time the product is the same, but with different packaging, so why the increase in price? Economist Jennifer Doleac, who studies crime and discrimination, outlines how what she calls “price discrimination” is actually beneficial to the economy (Duffin). She says, “this particular kind of price discrimination happens when companies divide a market up into segments and charge a different price to each segment” (Duffin). Apparently this kind of price discrimination fuels the market, because it allows the maximum number of people who want the product to buy the product. The thinking is that women really will pay more for the same product, whereas men are more likely to buy a product if it’s conveniently priced. These kinds of tactics prey on gender stereotypes and different expectations. Women are often valued for their appearance much more than men, so it is assumed that they would be willing to pay a little more for personal care products and clothing.
The solution we’re given for this frustrating economic situation is to stop buying the pink razors. Doleac suggests it’s up to us to research price differences and to stop supporting companies that price differently based on gender (Duffin). But this is more of a bandaid than a solution. Furthermore, while it isn’t too hard to buy black razors instead of pink ones and evergreen-scented shaving cream instead of raspberry-scented shaving cream, it’s much harder to disregard gender for products like clothing. The issue is that even when articles of clothing are almost the same, stores can still claim the validity of pricing women’s clothing higher for reasons such as differences in production or available inventory. Trade lawyer Michael Cone, who’s spent years researching this issue, has brought two cases to federal court in the U.S. claiming import tariffs discriminated on gender (Sebastian). Cone’s evidence included button-down shirts that were essentially the same, only those that had buttons on the right side (customary for men) were priced somewhat lower than those with buttons on the left side (customary for women) (Sebastian). Both of Cone’s cases were thrown out (Sebastian).
One problem in looking into the root of the pink tax is that it’s unclear as to where the difference in pricing begins. Is it with the manufacturers, the brand, or the retailer? Ted Potrikus, President and CEO of the Retail Council of New York State, believes it’s ultimately up to the brand to fix these pricing disparities, whether or not it begins with them (Sebastian). Economist Joan Robinson questions the efficiency of price discrimination (Duffin). In her eyes, products should have higher prices only if their value is indeed higher, often meaning the product has extra features (Duffin). For Robinson, pricing products differently simply based on packaging or color undermines a smooth running economy, because product manufacturers take advantage of markets that are captivated by consumerism, where someone’s value in society is directly correlated to what they consume (Duffin). The solution, says Robinson, is government regulation (Duffin).
The only federal law related to price discrimination is in the Affordable Care Act, which states that insurance companies can no longer charge women different prices for identical services (Elliott). In 1995, California was the first state to ban gender-based pricing in places such as hair salons and dry-cleaners (Sebastian). New York state passed a similar law in 1998 (Sebastian). Fines violating the law start at $250 for a first offense (source). The city issued 129 violations to businesses in 2015 (Sebastian). Apart from these few forms of regulation, it’s up to women to combat this problem. In France, one women’s rights group started a site and uploaded photos of products that had unequal pricing (Elliot). Still, these kinds of solutions ignore the inherent sexism behind such pricing. Not only are women pressured into buying more personal products than men, pads and tampons are still taxed as luxury items (Elliott). Of course most of us should count ourselves lucky to have access to these products, especially when we compare our situation to that of many girls and women in developing countries. UNICEF estimates 10% of African girls miss school when they’re menstruating because they don’t have pads or tampons (Elliott). In western countries we face a lesser problem on the flipside. Women are estimated to spend 3,000USD over the course of our life on menstrual products, whereas products such as Viagra can sometimes be covered by insurance (Elliott).
Stereotypes about women follow us when it comes to pricing. Northwestern University did a study on vehicle repair pricing. It found that women who seemed clueless on the phone were quoted $406 for a job that should cost $365, while men who acted similarly uninformed were quoted $383 (Elliott). Other parts of a woman’s life can also affect pricing. For example, Old Navy was called out recently for charging women $12-15 more for plus-size jeans than for non-plus-size jeans, but having no price disparity between men’s plus-size and non-plus-size sections (Elliott). Another issue is that of little to no representation of women of color, or people of color more generally, in personal products and other business sectors. If price discrimination is helpful to the economy, then why don’t companies take advantage of a wider market that is more inclusive to people of color? Is it because they don’t think people of color would spring for specialized products or because they might actually have to change the formula of their products rather than just the color, or because they simply don’t want to cater to people of color? This exclusion of people of color in the market points more towards discrimination based on race and gender than to different prices benefitting to the economy.
Ultimately women should try to push for legislation that defends against price discrimination. In the meantime, there are more companies coming out with gender neutral products. Both Harry’s shave club and Boxed enforce equal pricing for razors, deodorants, and other products, the latter company even refusing to tax pads and tampons (Elliott). While it shouldn’t be our responsibility to have to find equal pricing, this may be the best option left to us, at least until we elect more female legislators to office.
Duffin, Karen, and Stacey Vanek Smith. “The Problem With The Pink Tax.” NPR, NPR, 13 Nov. 2018, www.npr.org/sections/money/2018/11/13/667539767/the-problem-with-the-pink-tax.
Elliott, Candice. “The Pink Tax- The Cost of Being a Female Consumer.” Listen Money Matters, www.listenmoneymatters.com/the-pink-tax/.
Sebastian, Clare. “Why Women Pay More than Men for the Same Stuff.” CNNMoney, Cable News Network, 7 Mar. 2016, money.cnn.com/2016/03/07/pf/pink-tax/index.html.