The Pink Tax: Gendered Pricing and the Exploitation of Women

By Doctor Comrade

In the past three months, two reports--one from the Toronto firm ParseHub and another from the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs--have found that women are being charged more for basic products than men. According to the NYCDCA report, "shampoo and conditioner marketed to women cost an average of 48 percent more than those marketed to men, while women’s jeans cost 10 percent more than men’s, and girls’ bikes and scooters cost 6 percent more than boys’. Overall, the study found that products marketed to women cost more 42 percent of the time." In the ParseHub study, Canadian women paid a 43% premium for equivalent products. The worst offenders, according to Forbes, are stores like Urban Outfitters, CVS, Target, Walgreens, H&M, and Kmart. Overall, women are being gouged on a per unit sold and per unit measurement basis.

These items indicate that social expectations of women and girls drive differential pricing. Christine Whelan at the University of Wisconsin–Madison argued that, “Yes, sometimes women do need smaller versions of things... But the idea that that equates to somewhere between a 30 to 50 percent price hike is simply playing on the socialized culture that says women need to look a certain way.”

And it's not just about looks, it's also about perception. Products are marketed as "feminine" to female consumers, and then are consciously priced accordingly. In free-market terms, these prices are more elastic because women are willing to pay more for the perception that these products are made specifically for them. Toys, toiletries, and clothing that are otherwise identical to their male-marketed counterparts are pinked, which not only allows stores to charge more for them, but these retailers do so consciously and purposefully in order to maximize profit. The end result is--unsurprisingly--a pricing system which exploits society's gendered expectations for women and girls.

But some economists are unconvinced that the "pink tax" is a real problem. Tim Worstall, writing in Forbes, argued that "We of course do not want to have anything quite so darn stupid as legislative relief on this." He says, "For example a pink disposable razor may have very much the same function as a blue disposable razor. But they’re not actually the same product. Quite apart from anything else, one is pink and the other blue. And that’s before we get into different designs to make shaving legs (or faces)." But here, Worstall begins explaining why exactly the pink tax is not bad. For one, it's the free market and consumers are making an educated choice about different products.

Or in other words, companies are price gouging women because women are so foolhardy as to continue buying gendered products. He continues, "why are the stores offering this different pricing? The obvious first answer is because they can. Everyone likes to be able to charge more rather than less. OK, but how do they know that they can charge more? Because they’ve tested this. Women will pay more for pink razors."

Naturally, like any good capitalist apologist, Worstall misses the moral point completely by assuming that the free market is inherently moral if each consumer is given a free choice. But there are numerous reasons to doubt Worstall's arguments on both accounts: the free market is not moral and the choice is not free.

We should not be content to live in a society where women are targeted for exploitation simply because they are women. Expectations for women are socially constructed and significantly different than expectations for men. The reason why gendered products exist is the pervasive ideological construction that women's products must produce an aura of femininity so that their consumers can feel accepted by a patriarchal society which has established norms for female conduct. Pink bikes or pink deodorants give women the impression that they are conforming to society's expectations, and by exploiting this simple psychological predisposition, retailers are engaged in a shameless and immoral system. Unchecked by legislation or social action, they will continue to abuse differential gender expectations for profit.

But Worstall extends the ethics of the free market by further explaining why prices should be allowed to be inflated: "If people thought they were the same product then price differentiation would not be possible... Everyone’s already got the choice and that they make the choices they do shows that they’re entirely happy with the choices they are making... Women will pay more for Excedrin Complete Menstrual than they will for Excedrin Extra Strength, exactly the same product except for the label. Entirely sensibly too, given that part of the effect that is being sought is the placebo effect of taking something you think will aid those menstrual pains."

Because if anyone is an expert on menstrual pains, it's definitely Tim Worstall.

He's suggesting that it's completely reasonable to pay extra for the placebo effect, so long as you know that's what you're getting. Of course, this means that people who fully know the products are identical would still experience the placebo effect, which seems to suggest Mr. Worstall has no idea what the placebo effect actually is.

More to the point, Worstall seems to believe that women should all unite together to overthrow these devious pricing schemes by refusing to buy gendered products. But here again Worstall is blaming the exploited rather than the exploiters: because women "are still buying the more expensive version even though the only difference is colour," it must be their fault that these companies continue to gouge them. The ethical choice is clear: equivalent products should not be priced differently based on gender identity. Capitalist apologists are so quick to defend disparate treatment that they align with concepts that obviously violate the reasonable demands of equality and fairness.

Ian Ayres, William K. Townsend Professor of Law at Yale Law School, has called these divergent pricing schemes a civil rights issue of based on "disparate impact" discrimination. He argues that, "Price-gouging is never a business justification for discrimination – even if it really helps a seller raise its profits." If anything, these more profitable pricing strategies are less justifiable according to Ayres because the profits are derived from discrimination.

Whether framed as a civil rights issue, an equality issue, or an anti-capitalist issue, differential pricing for women's products is unfair and promotes inequality and exploitation. Allowing the free market to determine prices for women's products has produced a pricing system in which women are forced to pay more for equivalent products in order to conform to society's expectations of them. We see the flaw of a so-called free market, where economics and money take precedence over equality, fairness, and opportunity. And you can also see the conflation made between economics and morality: that the market decides what is fair, rather than society. We should reject this gendered calculus on the grounds that economics are not our morality. Our morality is determined by fairness, egalitarianism, and democracy.

Related Posts