January 20, 2016

#Pinktax and #Genderpricing: Gender in the Checkout Aisle

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

Last month I wrote a post that was critical of the state's involvement in offering a voluntary tax of the poor and desperate via the lottery. And you are likely aware that women still make less than men (79 cents for every dollar a man makes at an equivalent job), the costs of birth control mostly fall on women, and research demonstrates a "mommy penalty" with the pay gap between mothers and fathers. This time I'd like to write about how women pay more than men in the checkout aisle.

You might think to yourself, "Well, like other bathroom products, tampons could just be folded into the cost of running a normal household." If you do think that way, there's a good chance that you are a man. Because, if you are a single mother or a young woman working her way through college or a member of a lesbian couple or have two teenaged daughters, it is a frustrating fact of life that women pay for and are taxed on everyday, essential products that the other 49% of the population does not have to pay for.

But there's really two ways to think about this. First there are all the things that cis-gendered women (and perhaps some transmen) use and have to pay for that cis-gendered men don't: from non-luxury products like tampons to health care services like gynecological exams. Many men might not bother to think about these things at all. (And why not, exactly?) And women not only pay for these essential goods, almost all states charge a tax on feminine hygiene products. The nickname for this, therefore, is the "tampon tax."

Tampons in the U.K., for example, fall under a luxury category and are taxed 5%, whereas there is no such sales tax in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where I live. California legislator Cristina Garcia notes that her state collects about $20 million from feminine products, and is proposing a bill to exclude feminine products from the sales tax.

The second way to think about this is how there is a price markup that comes with products that are "designed for women." This is called the "pink tax." The same item might be marketed to women—coated in pink or purple rather than blue—is sold for a higher price. Back in 1998, New York City banned gender-based discrimination on services (e.g., haircuts and dry cleaning have to have gender-neutral rates).

But in December 2015, the city's Department of Consumer Affairs studied 794 products from 91 different brands across 35 different categories, comparing the "for boys" and "for girls" equivalents, and found an overall 7% increase in cost for products geared toward women. They found that the "pink tax" was highest for personal care products (13%) and adult clothing (7%).

Women pay more for Levi's jeans (24.3%), and pay more for clothing at Urban Outfitters (24.6%). In 30 out of the 35 categories, women were charged more for equivalent products. You can read the full report, called "From Cradle to Cane: The Cost of Being a Female Consumer" here. Yes, even walking canes are differently priced based on gender!

And for the most part, we don't even really think about these comparisons in our daily lives. Men: do you ever go into the women's aisle in the pharmacy or at the GAP? Probably not. Women, do you ever comparison shop in the men's aisle? (Actually this is more likely, since women disproportionately do the labor of buying household goods.) If you do compare, you might be surprised.

Buying Levi's? Men's jeans cost $68, and women's jeans cost $88. One would think that men's jeans are often bigger, thicker and even have bigger pockets. I suppose that someone could argue that women's jeans require more design, but one could just look at all those skinny hipster jeans for men and wonder if there's a growing equality when it comes to style

The Washington Post offers the example of Walgreens selling a box of Schick Hydro 5 cartridges (in blue) for $14.99 while the Schick Hydro "Silk" razors (in pink and purple), was sold for $18.49. For some of these products, the only difference is the smell. You can, again, think about the sales taxes for these products, which are based on a percentage of the cost!

Adding all that up could equal $100,000 over a lifetime, according to .Mic. They have a nice corresponding video on the topic. You can also check out #genderpricing and #pinktax on Twitter for more examples.

When asked by the Post, Target said that such pricing was a "system error." In a particularly disgusting example as related to race in addition to gender: An African American ice skating doll cost $11.87, while the white version of the doll cost $9.88. WalMart told CNBC it was a "just a pricing error." A 1991 study found that women (and minorities) were asked to pay almost 40% more at auto dealerships, since women were perceived as knowing less about cars.

A particularly striking example of "pinkwashing"—not really about the pinktax, but a reminder of the phenomenon—was when people started writing sarcastic reviews of Bic For Her pens on Amazon. One reviewer wrote, "Someone has answered my gentle prayers and FINALLY designed a pen that I can use all month long! I use it when I'm swimming, riding a horse, walking on the beach and doing yoga." Another added, "The best thing about this pen? It looks so stylish tucked behind my ear while I'm perched on the corner of my boss' desk flirting with him." Funny stuff.

In the 1994 book Paradoxes of Gender, Judith Lorber writes that gender establishes "patterns of expectations for individuals, orders social processes of everyday life, is built into the major social organizations of society, such as the economy, ideology, the family, and politics, and is also an entity in and of itself." Here we see how gender plays out in the consumer world, and gender is, as we would say in a sociology class, socially constructed.

So, what can be done? Marie Claire magazine ran a piece on gender pricing in 2012, offered a list of congress members and encouraged readers to speak up for a federal law outlining the practice. Canada ditched its tax on feminine products last year, and there's a Change.org petition to "Stop taxing our periods! Period." Second, you could shop at female-run businesses, but that might be a challenge. (Women are making some progress in heading small businesses as of late, but yes, research shows that female-run businesses are more egalitarian then male-run businesses.) More practically, however, whenever possible women can start buying the equivalent products that were made for men. In the 1980s there was a commercial for a women's deodorant called Secret and the tag line was: "Strong enough for a man, made for a woman." I remember making fun of the goofy line as a kid, and never realized, "Hey, why should deodorant be any different in the first place?" What do you see when you head to the drug store? Take the test yourself.

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