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March 15, 2012

Why Women Pay More

From dry cleaning to haircuts, women often pay more than men due to gender pricing. Find out why you may be paying more, but receiving less. You can drop your local representative a line demanding a federal law outlawing gender pricing at marieclaire.com/womenpaymore.

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Q: Why Does this Shirt Cost More to Clean than that One?

A: Because it belongs to a woman. Over the course of your lifetime, you'll pay more than a man for everything from health insurance to haircuts, dry cleaning to deodorant. Here's how businesses get away with sex discrimination, and what you can do to stop it

THREE YEARS AGO, Janet Floyd, the cofounder of a Manhattan market research firm, spotted a neighborhood dry cleaner that offered the following deal: Launder four shirts and get the fifth laundered for free. Button-downs are a staple of Floyd's wardrobe, so she returned carrying an armload of oxfords. But when she dropped the shirts on the counter, she was told that the offer applied only to men's shirts, not "blouses." "The owner of the store insisted women's shirts didn't fit on their machines and needed to be hand-pressed," says Floyd. (The cleaner charged roughly $2 to launder a dress shirt versus $6.50 to dry-clean a blouse.) Floyd then asked if she could pay the higher price on four of her shirts and still get the fifth cleaned for free. The owner declined. "It was outrageous. They were giving this huge discount to men, and we weren't getting one," she fumes.

Sounds like blatant discrimination, right? It is, and yet it's perfectly legal. Though civil rights laws prohibit job and housing discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation, there's no federal law banning discrimination in the sale of goods and services. Several cities and states have adopted their own antidiscrimination statutes, but they are often vague and rife with loopholes--like the one that lets dry cleaners charge more if the garment requires "extra labor." (Many cleaners don't even launder women's shirts, forcing female customers to dry-clean everything.) While it would be unthinkable to encounter a menu of services that overtly discriminates on the basis of, say, race — imagine a salon that posted different prices for blacks and whites--it's a long-standing practice when it comes to services that target men and women. "This is a problem that has gone on for many years," explains professor John Banzhaf of the George Washington University Law School. "Even though it's well recognized, people sit back and go, 'Well, that's just the way it is.' And if you compare it with all the problems women face, it's certainly not in the top one, three, even five."

In fact, being a woman in this country has become an increasingly expensive proposition. It's not just dry cleaning and haircuts where women get socked: We pay more for home mortgages, health insurance, and cars and car repairs (even when we mind our credit, eat right and exercise, and do our homework), not to mention everyday items like deodorant and disposable razors. California, which in 1996 became the first state to ban gender pricing, found that women paid about $1,351 annually in extra costs and fees. Apply that figure to the rest of the women in the country and the total burden is staggering — roughly $151 billion in markups, more than what the federal government spent on education last year and greater than the budgets of 43 states.

Even more startling is how little outrage the issue seems to summon among women, though we lose out in nearly every transaction we make. Last year, the European Union's top court outlawed all forms of insurance-related gender pricing, a move that will have profound repercussions for any European who drives or buys into a health-insurance plan. Yet there's no movement here to change the law, no marches in Washington or sit-ins at Congress, no viral Facebook or YouTube campaigns. And without meaningful legislation that demands equality for men and women at the cash register, change will have to come one lawsuit at a time. And who goes to court over a dry-cleaning bill?

TWELVE YEARS AGO, Michael Cone, a New York City trade lawyer, was researching import tariffs at the request of a client, a shoe manufacturer. Reading through the U.S. tariff schedule — the list of fees the government imposes on goods shipped in from other nations — he was stunned: Men's sneakers were taxed at 8.5 percent, while women's sneakers were taxed at 10 percent. "I immediately thought, You can't do that! That's discrimination!" Cone recalls. After more digging, he learned that the government discriminates across the board for all sorts of garments. Sometimes men get the advantage, sometimes women. (Men's gloves, for example, are taxed at 14 percent, while women's are taxed at 12.6 percent.) Though there is no ostensible rationale for the discrepancies, the tariff codes have a history of bias — before the Civil War, cheap imported wool incurred a lower duty than finer wool so Southern slave owners could clothe their slaves cheaply.

Because women face stiffer tariffs on some of the highest-volume items shipped into the United States, Cone — who has since joined the firm FSB FisherBroyles, LLP — believes that discriminatory tariffs have hurt women more than men. "The Constitution forbids Uncle Sam from sticking his hands down your jeans to find out whether you're a man or woman for no good reason," he says. Cone is currently suing the government for discrimination. (The case is still pending.) Initially, he reached out to other clients who might join him as co-plaintiffs. He told them that if he won (a big if, to be sure), they could potentially recover millions of dollars from the government in unfair tariffs. More than 100 companies eventually signed on, including Steve Madden and Urban Outfitters. "But others wouldn't touch the case with a 10-foot pole," Cone explains. "I think one of the reasons is that they were worried it would draw more attention to gender pricing" — their gender pricing, which earns them untold millions and which inequitable tariffs alone cannot justify.

Though few retailers will cop to it, gender pricing is standard industry practice. It's especially pronounced at the drugstore, where bathroom staples like shampoo, soap, and razors marketed to women (invariably packaged in pretty pastels) routinely cost more than near-identical products for men. A recent study by researchers at the University of Central Florida examined some 200 sticks of deodorant sold at major drugstore chains and found that sticks for women cost, on average, 30 cents more per ounce than those for men, even when the only discernible difference was scent. "These companies have us convinced that men and women are so biologically different that we need completely different products, as though we are a different species," says study coauthor Megan Duesterhaus.

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