When Sexism Is Economically Justified

Women pay more for dry cleaning and other items, but many of those price hikes make sense.

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On the surface, the retail world seems stacked against women: We pay more for many items, from shampoo to razors to dry-cleaning services. But a look into the reasons for this alleged price discrimination reveals legitimate market forces—not sexism—to be at work.

In a provocative article on Marie Claire’s website, "Why Women Pay More," writer Lea Goldman quite rightly points out that women pay more to dry clean shirts than men do. She also calls out more expensive women’s shampoos and razors and different insurance rates for women. “We lose out in nearly every transaction we make,” Goldman asserts.

Aside from that being a gross overstatement (the vast majority of the transactions we make are gender neutral—when you bought your morning coffee, did the barista make note of your gender?), many of Goldman’s examples can be explained through simple economics, not sexism.

Men’s and women’s shirts, for example, are not created equal. Men’s shirts, because of their flat lines, are far easier to clean, and dry cleaners can use standardized machines to iron them. Women’s shirts are, naturally, curvier, and require a more labor-intensive dry cleaning process. It would hardly be fair to require a dry cleaner to charge the same amount for such different services. (Even the feminist blog Jezebel acknowledged this fact when the story first made the news in 2009.) Goldman calls this price difference “blatant discrimination,” but the facts suggest it is only the market at work.

Goldman’s reporting also reveals the complex system of tariffs the United States has developed over the years. Men’s sneakers are taxed at 8.5 percent; women’s at 10 percent. But the price difference isn’t always biased against women. Men’s gloves are taxed at 14 percent and women’s are taxed at 12.6 percent. Complicated and bureaucratic, yes. Sexist? Only if the tax difference always gave men a better deal for no legitimate reason, which it doesn’t.

Goldman also points out a fact of life that many couples have surely noticed: Women’s self-care products tend to be pricier than men’s. Shampoo, deodorant, and razors marketed to women tend to carry higher price tags than those sold to men. Perhaps women prefer fancier products, or maybe we’re simply willing to pay more for our hygiene routines, but the market clearly supports pricier products for women. But is it really sexist when women also have the choice to simply skip the expensive options and purchase off-brand razors, soap, and shampoo instead? Anyone who’s recently visited a pharmacy knows that women do not suffer from lack of choice in the self-care aisles.

The article also calls attention to the higher rates women pay for health insurance, an area of legitimate concern, as the national birth control debate recently made clear. This topic is too important to be lumped in with complaints about expensive conditioners and $7 dry cleaning charges, which are, after all, luxury expenses anyway. The area of insurance is a complicated one, and women don’t always get the short end of the stick: Auto insurance companies often give young women better deals than young men, and for good reason—they’re safer drivers. Does Goldman also think that’s sexist?

Marie Claire encourages readers to contact their members of Congress to ask them to outlaw this so-called “gender-pricing.” Before you do that, consider the unintended consequences of such laws. If dry cleaners could no longer charge more to clean a shirt that required more labor, how many of those small businesses would go out of business? If women’s shampoo couldn’t cost more than men’s shampoo, which popular yet pricey products would be forced off the market? (Goodbye, Kerastase.)

There’s plenty of discrimination and abuse against women in the world to get angry about and to fight. Paying more for expensive dry cleaning and shampoo is not one of them.

Twitter: @alphaconsumer