Have you heard of the "pink tax"--a term for the routine practice of charging more for products and services targeted to women than those targeted to men? If not, you will soon. Though the term's been around for years, and the practice itself has existed from the earliest days of commerce, both have gained more prominence lately. That's thanks to a study showing just how common it is, and a bill introduced in the House to make gender-based pricing illegal. Now, Burger King has gotten into the act in a very witty way.

To highlight the unfairness of the pink tax (so called because products for women are often colored pink), Burger King recently briefly offered its regular Chicken Fries for $1.69 a box, or "Chick Fries," the same food in the same serving size, but in a pretty pink box where the chicken has a bow and eyelashes, for $3.09. Then they created an ad.

At the end of the ad, after declaring that Chick Fries would be priced at $1.69 for everyone, Burger King invites viewers to support H.R. 5686, the Pink Tax Repeal Act, which would make it illegal to price similar products differently depending on whether they are for men or women. California Representative Jackie Speier (D) introduced the bill in April, saying that she wanted to spark conversation about gender disparity in pricing.

In 2015, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs released a study measuring the pink tax in New York City. Researchers examined the prices of 794 different products. They found that items for women cost more than similar items for men 42 percent of the time (the men's items cost more 18 percent of the time). Overall, women were paying an average 7 percent more for items marketed to them. The biggest discrepancies, they found, were in personal care products, where products for women cost an average 13 percent more than those for men. Some of the price discrimination they found was surprisingly blatant--for instance, a red Radio Flyer scooter costing $24.99 and the same scooter in pink costing $49.99.

Will you please launder my shirt?

Gender price discrimination makes itself felt in other ways besides product pricing. For example, dry cleaners routinely charge more when they clean shirts for women than they do for men--in one experiment this happened even when a man and a woman dropped off the same garment. When asked about this, dry cleaning store personnel will explain that men's shirts are laundered, pressed, and folded while women's are dry cleaned and hung on a hanger. But this practice is common whether women ask to have their shirts dry cleaned or not, and reflects the industry's assumption that if a shirt just needed to be washed and ironed, a woman would do that herself, presumably because women don't value their time the way men do. As The New York Times found when it followed up with a dry cleaner about the discrepancy, for at least some dry cleaners, dry cleaning women's clothes rather than laundering them is a matter of policy, and female customers are given no choice in the matter.

Then there's volume. Sometimes men's and women's products are priced the same, but women receive less of them. For instance, men's and women's deodorants cost roughly the same, but on average, men's deodorants contain about 20 percent more product than women's do. And then there's the "tampon tax," the galling fact that in many of the states that collect sales tax, tampons and sanitary napkins are taxed as luxury items rather than necessities.

Even when products are priced the same, there seems to be a difference in quality. Although I have no scientific evidence to support this, my observation is that men's clothing and other products are generally made more durable than women's. For example, 18 years ago, I bought a pair of men's sports sandals simply because I have wide feet and they fit me better than the women's sports sandals. I still wear those sandals today, and I've never had a piece of women's footwear, including sports sandals, that lasted half as long. For 20 years when we lived in Upstate New York, I stacked and carried wood every winter. That's a job that requires gloves, and those gloves take a beating. I never could find a pair of women's work gloves that would stand up to it, although I did find many with pretty pictures of flowers on them. 

Stop paying the pink tax.

Infuriating as all of this is, there's a relatively straightforward action that women faced with the pink tax can take: Vote with our wallets, as I did (unintentionally) when I bought those sports sandals years ago. Retailers and manufacturers will come up with all sorts of excuses for charging more for women's products, but here's the real reason: Women are considered to be less "price elastic" than men. In other words, if you can get a woman to like something, she'll buy it even if a similar product is available at a lower price. This is the basis for the odd reasoning, put forth by some consumer products businesses, that it makes sense for women to pay more for products because it costs more to market those products to women.

So let's all be a little more price elastic. If men's shavers cost less, and men's and women's shavers are functionally identical, why pay more for the women's version? And, with the possible exception of Old Spice, do men's deodorants really smell un-feminine? They don't to my nose, at least.

Let's ignore the clever marketing and the cute colors and buy products based on their price and quality alone, and whenever we can, let's buy the men's version of a product rather than the women's. We'll likely get a higher quality product at a lower price then if we buy the women's version. And the best way to fight the pink tax is to refuse to pay it whenever we can.

Published on: Jul 28, 2018
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