Woman shopping at a store.

The Pink Tax: What Is It And How Can I Avoid It?

Molly Grace10-minute read
July 01, 2022

Two razors, both alike in everything but price, in the fair supermarket where we lay our scene…

Much like Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the argument surrounding the pink tax is one that features plenty of drama. Two sides, pitted against each other in their disagreement, each insist that they are, without a doubt, unequivocally right.

But what is the pink tax, and why is it so controversial?

Razors are just one oft-cited example of the so-called pink tax, a term coined to describe the phenomenon of female-branded products tending to be pricier than male or gender-neutral equivalents. As many critics of the pink tax have pointed out, even the most basic razors tend to be priced differently according to the gender they’re marketed to, with women’s versions costing more even when there are few distinguishable differences between the two products. So, while Romeo may pay only $9.99 for a pack of his favorite razors, Juliet pays $12.99 for essentially the same model.

As we’ll see, this trend applies to many other products a woman uses throughout her lifetime.

There’s no shortage of debate on this phenomenon. One side argues that the pink tax unfairly burdens women and amounts to price discrimination, and as such should be fought or even regulated against. The other side believes that any female-branded items that cost more are simply a result of the free market working correctly, in which companies charge more for items based on certain economic factors, such as how much the products cost to make and what the demand for them is. The former group believes that brands and retailers make it unfairly difficult to avoid these higher prices, especially when considering the social costs of not conforming to certain gender norms, while the latter group argues that the gender price gap is more often an issue of individual choice.

Essentially, the argument surrounding the pink tax comes down to this: Are women simply willing to pay more, or are they forced to do so? And is this fair? The answer, it turns out, is a little complicated.

The History Of The Pink Tax

Plenty of opining has been done about the pink tax, but what do we actually know about it? How do we really know that women pay more than men for certain products? It may be less noticeable today, but there’s a longstanding history of women paying more than men for services and products that are pretty much identical.

Gender-based pricing has been common practice for certain amenities over the years, including haircuts, dry cleaning and even health insurance.

Before the Affordable Care Act was signed into law in 2010 and prohibited the practice, health insurers routinely charged women higher monthly premiums than men. The rationale for charging women more for health insurance was that women have more health – specifically, reproductive – costs than men.

In 1991, Yale Law professor Ian Ayres found that car dealerships were systematically offering better prices on identical cars to white men than they were for black or women shoppers.

Some states and localities have been pushing back against what they view as discriminatory pricing. For example, California and New York City have laws that restrict gender-based pricing for services.

Lawmakers have found it more difficult to regulate the pricing of goods, as evidenced by the 2016 legislative attempt in California to update its law to include prohibition of gender-based discrimination on goods. The bill was ultimately withdrawn following criticism that it could open a door for excessive litigation. A similar bill is currently moving through the New York State Assembly.

Attempts have been made to legislate against the pink tax at a federal level as well. In April 2019, the Pink Tax Repeal Act was re-introduced to Congress – following two earlier versions from 2016 and 2018 – by Rep. Jackie Speier of California’s 14thdistrict. Speier was responsible for introducing California’s law that banned gender-based pricing for services, the Gender Tax Repeal Act of 1995. The proposed federal legislation would make it illegal for companies to charge women and men different prices for similar products or services.

Do Women Really Pay More?

Can we really know if the pink tax still exists today, especially when the market is full of so many different products that are difficult – if not impossible – to compare? While it may be tough, there have been a few analyses and studies that dive into this issue that have done a good job of ensuring they’re making fair comparisons and getting the most accurate view possible.

In general, these studies have noted that there isa marked difference between what men pay and what women pay for the same types of products. Figuring out the whyof it is a little trickier.

One of the biggest and most popularly cited examples is the 2015 study that came out of the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA). The report, titled “From Cradle to Cane: The Cost of Being a Female Consumer,” found that, on average, women’s products cost 7% more than similar products for men, with the biggest gap found in personal care products, where women paid 13% more. The DCA also found significant differences among children’s toys, children’s and adult’s clothing, and senior/home health care products.

The DCA study looked at 794 individual products, sectioned into 35 categories across five industries. They pulled product prices from a variety of different brands and stores, selecting products that were similar in branding, ingredients, appearance, textile, construction and marketing.

It found that 42% of the time, women paid more for their products. Prices were equal 40% of the time. Men paid more only 18% of the time.

What is perhaps one of the most interesting takeaways from this report is that the pink tax follows a woman through every stage of her life, paying more for everything from early childhood toys to, later in life, canes.

The study found significant price differences between toys made for girls and toys made for boys. Sometimes, there was a substantial difference for products that were virtually the same, except for color.

The report points to an example of two scooters – one red, one pink – with wildly different pricing. Both were of the same brand and model, but the red one was priced at $24.99, while the pink one cost twice as much, $49.99. (It’s worth noting that the retailer that sold the scooters fixed the discrepancy after the report was released.)

As they grow, girls and women will pay more for clothes – even items that are practically the same, like the plain red boy’s and girl’s polo shirts with a $2 price difference – shampoo, and, in the health care aisle, supports and braces, compression socks and adult incontinence products.

In addition to the DCA study, a 2018 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office titled “Gender-Related Price Differences for Goods and Services,” found that “the target gender for a product is a significant factor contributing to price differences identified,” but noted that it did not have the information to conclude whether the price discrepancies are due to gender bias rather than legitimate factors including marketing costs.

Who’s To Blame?

The first question to ask about a price discrepancy between seemingly similar products or services is: Is there a reason this needs to cost more?

Sometimes, the answer is yes. Let’s look at women’s haircuts, for example.

Traditionally, women have been charged more by hair stylists because their haircuts have tended to be more labor intensive than men’s. In this case, even if you don’t agree with the fairness of it, you can see why a woman would be charged more. However, some stylists are moving in the direction of gender-neutral pricing that is instead based on hair length. In addition to helping reduce the gender pricing gap, this could end up being more cost effective for hair stylists, especially as longer styles become more popular with men and shorter styles become more popular with women.

A 2016 report from the Senate’s Joint Economic Committee titled “The Pink Tax: How Gender-Based Pricing Hurts Women’s Buying Power” laid out a few possible explanations for the pink tax, noting that instances where the cost to produce a good or provide a service differs between similar-seeming products is an example of a legitimate reason for one to be priced higher than the other.

In some cases, tariffs may be behind a higher price for women. According to the committee’s report, tariffs on imported women’s clothing tend to be higher than for men’s clothes.

Liz Grauerholz, a professor of sociology at University of Central Florida and co-author of “The Cost of Doing Femininity: Gendered Disparities in Pricing of Personal Care Products and Services,” a 2011 study on gender-based disparities in the cost of goods and services in the personal care industry, said that this gender price gap is most likely due to both economic and cultural influences.

“Economic issues that may factor in include supply-and-demand dynamics, differential tariffs on imported goods, marketing costs, and so on. But these factors are not likely to explain all the cost differences across a wide range of products and services. Cultural factors certainly play a role here,” Grauerholz said.

In other words, it’s not all dollars and cents. In many ways, the pink tax is a reflection of the ways we raise girls versus the ways we raise boys, and the things we value as a society.

“Culturally speaking, women are under far greater pressure to conform to appearance norms – to look ‘put together,’ wear make-up, wear certain types of clothes, and so on. Corporations know this and market heavily to women, especially around personal care products and services, which may drive up costs and demand for these products,” she said.

While few would argue that there are no differences between men and women, it seems that culturally instilled gender norms and marketing have conspired to artificially widen the chasm, which, perhaps not surprisingly, tends to benefit businesses.

“Despite the fact that, as human beings, men and women are far more similar than different, our culture overemphasizes differences and even creates difference when it doesn’t exist (e.g. creating different soaps for the female and male bodies). Because gender is so central to our identities and cultural roles, most of us are invested in perpetuating the myth of difference to justify differential treatment, and therefore purchase without question products marketed to our sex,” Grauerholz said.

Shrink It And Pink It

Marketers spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get women to buy things. Women have long been viewed as the primary shoppers of the household, and as such, they’ve been a key target of advertising campaigns for decades, with varying degrees of success.

One of the more famous, old-school marketing adages is “shrink it and pink it,” meaning that all marketers need to do to get women to buy a product is decrease the size of the original product and color it pink. But does that still work today?

Not really, according to Linda Landers, founder and CEO of Girlpower Marketing, a Southern California-based public relations and digital marketing agency with an expertise in marketing to women.

“In today’s world, women are not waiting for Prince Charming – they’re making their own money and creating their own lives. They are reshaping the world today one day at a time, and many marketers aren’t keeping up,” Landers said.

While it’s not a bad strategy for advertisers to tailor their messages and products to the audience they’re trying to reach, they often take it one step further by then charging more for the products that are marketed to women, even when they don’t necessarily have a good reason to do so.

“‘Shrinking and pinking’ is not the most effective way to market to women. Yes, sometimes a smaller grip on a hammer or other product can be more comfortable for women. But the rationale that it should then cost 30% more is questionable at best,” Landers said.

Landers believes that marketers should be able to explain the reasoning behind the higher cost of a female version of a product, and is dubious when brands point to things like slightly different ingredients – different fragrances, for example – or different packaging..

“Many marketers believe that women care less about the price of a product or service than men, and because they’re willing to pay more, they should be charged a higher price,” she said.

Even more significant differences between men’s and women’s products might not necessarily justify a higher price for women.

The DCA report’s authors spoke with an expert who noted that while men’s products and women’s products may have different ingredients, these differences are not a major factor in the price discrepancies. In fact, women may pay a premium for “label” ingredients, which generally make up less than 1% of the total product and are listed as part of the marketing of the product to make it seem more attractive or high-end.

How To Avoid Paying More

It seems like the obvious solution is for women to simply ignore what gender a product is intended for and instead just buy the cheapest version. This is a legitimate strategy for individual women to prevent the pink tax from hurting their wallets.

“On an individual level, we can be more discerning consumers. Most products are identical or have only slight variations, so check to see if the item you’re purchasing is also marketed to men, and if it’s cheaper, buy that one,” Grauerholz suggested.

Landers suggested some potential solutions for female consumers as well – things they can do on both an individual and larger scale:

  • Support companies who are taking a stand against the pink tax with gender-neutral pricing.
  • Buy more gender-neutral items when shopping for toys, razors, shampoos, deodorant, etc.
  • Avoid the dry cleaners as much as possible.
  • Price compare when shopping.
  • Talk to your state representatives, local retailers, and on social media. State that you’re not willing to pay these enhanced prices anymore. Word-of-mouth of a powerful thing, especially among female consumers.

Grauerholz also believes that lawmakers have a responsibility to enact change, that the onus can’t rest solely on the consumer.

“These individual consumption behaviors, when multiplied by thousands or millions, will influence supply and demand, and hence prices,” she said. “But the burden shouldn’t rest on the individual consumer to force change. It’s important for communities and states to enact policies dictating fair pricing.”

The DCA report analyzed the financial burden of price discrepancies between women’s and men’s products. What it concluded was that, while the differences may be due in part to legitimate forces such as manufacturing costs, women are unfairly burdened because higher prices are “mostly unavoidable.” Women don’t control what textiles or ingredients companies choose to put into their products and are limited by what is available to them, the report says.

“Women are already paid less than men – about 80 cents to every dollar men earn, and experience other economic burdens (e.g. if they are single parents, they are more likely to be raising children in their homes than men). The pink tax simply yet profoundly adds to their economic burden. Not only does it impact the amount of money they have on a daily or weekly basis, but compounded over time, it will shape their economic situations in decades to come,” Grauerholz said.

Molly Grace

Molly Grace is a staff writer focusing on mortgages, personal finance and homeownership. She has a B.A. in journalism from Indiana University. You can follow her on Twitter @themollygrace.