Gendered Pricing: The Surprising Costs of Being a Woman

Libby Kane

No one doubts that women spend more on certain things than men when they have different needs.

Makeup. Hair products. Waxing. Gyno appointments.

But then there are the charges you don’t see coming. Imagine $2 tacked onto every errand you run. Two bucks is pretty inoffensive on its own, but as anyone who has ever stuck to a budget knows, dollars add up quickly.

After reading in Marie Claire that dry cleaners charge more to clean a woman’s button-down shirt than a man’s, one of our editors tested it out herself by visiting her local dry cleaner in New York City. Lo and behold, her plain shirt cost $4 more than a man’s would have, because “the machine couldn’t fit shirts from a smaller person.”

California, the first state to ban gendered pricing in 1996, found that, on average, women spent an extra $1,351 per year in these extra costs and fees.

We like being women. We just don’t like being charged for the privilege.

So what exactly are these costs, and how can we opt out of the “woman tax”? We’ll tell you.

At the Drugstore …

In 2010, Consumer Reports found that equivalent products in a drugstore, like deodorant or shampoo, cost more if they were marketed to women. They asked the manufacturers why and almost across the board, the companies said it was more expensive to manufacture products for women.

“They are completely different formulations,” said one spokesperson of two antiperspirants with the exact same percentages of the exact same ingredients. Representatives of the offending companies also cited differences in packaging and foaming action (which women apparently requested) as reasons for disparate pricing.

A study from the University of Central Florida drew similar conclusions. It found that on average, women’s deodorants were priced 30 cents higher than men’s, when “the only discernible difference was scent.” It’s a similar case for most products marketed to women, such as razors and shampoo, which smell different and look different but at the end of the day serve the same purpose as scent-less, glitter-less versions.

On Anything Imported

Part of the reason this happens is because products for women cost more from the get-go, starting when they enter the United States. Marie Claire tells the story of a trade lawyer named Michael Cone, who was sifting through the list of tariffs (fees the U.S. charges to import goods from other countries) and noticed something incredible: The tariffs differed across gender lines.

For example, men’s sneakers were taxed at 8.5%, while women’s were taxed at 10%. Not every garment tariff he discovered was in favor of men, but he did find that women were susceptible to higher taxes on those goods imported to the U.S. at the highest volume. While there is no legal loophole or ostensible reason for the discrepancy, Marie Claire points out that there’s a history of bias in tariffs–before the Civil War, it cost less to import cheap wool so slaveowners could clothe their slaves. At this point, inequality in tariffs is just the way it has always been.

Cone gathered together over 100 companies to join him in the discrimination lawsuit he brought against the U.S. government, promising millions of dollars of unconstitutional fees if they won. The suit is currently pending.

… And at the Doctor’s Office

And then there’s health insurance. Here’s a startling fact: A nonsmoking woman often pays a higher premium than a smoking man. Women pay a total $1 billion more on annual health care costs than men, according to the National Women’s Law Center. The discrepancy is called gender rating, and in states that haven’t banned it, 92% of the top insurance plans charge women more.

Insurance companies say that women pay more because they’re more expensive customers who utilize more health services. While there are the obvious reasons (there is no male equivalent to the gynecologist, and women are the only ones seeing doctors when pregnant), most plans that discriminate, according to new research from the National Women’s Law Center, don’t cover maternity services.

There is also the fact that healthy men don’t go to doctors like healthy women. Research consistently proves this: A Louis Harris and Associates survey of over 4,000 men showed that not only did three times more men than women avoid the doctor in the previous year, but that a third of those men surveyed had no regular physician. A 2011 survey from Esquire Magazine found similar results.

Therefore, women demand more from health insurance … and pay for it.

What You Can Do

At least there’s some good news. Under the Affordable Care Act, which was signed into law, ten states have already banned gender rating in health insurance. The law says that by 2014, all insurance companies must stop pricing differently for women.

But that’s just health insurance. What about everything else? Marie Claire has compiled a convenient list of Congresspeople and their contact info if you’re incensed enough by this information to demand a federal law outlawing gendered pricing. No pressure … but it’s pretty upsetting stuff!

And then there are the steps you can take on the ground, like buying products made for men when they’re cheaper and fit your needs (who cares if you use men’s shaving cream on your legs?), refusing to patronize businesses that blatantly discriminate in their pricing and shopping around for the best possible health insurance if you’re purchasing an individual plan.

Sure, there may be unfair charges for being a woman. But you can do your part by being one lady who won’t shop where they’re levied.

  • Cassie

    What are the other 11 states that have banned gender pricing?

    • LibbyKane

      Hi Cassie,
      Some states have taken steps to limit gender rating and others have banned it completely on an individual or group basis. Either way, you can find a complete list in the following report from the National Women’s Law Center:

  • Belen_correa

    My last employer stopped paying for my dry cleaning because it really doubled and tripled the price of what they spent on the guys.. Terrible! They would still reimbursed me a decent amount to allocate to dry cleaning but so not fair that dry cleaners charge women so much more!!

    • seogden

      I completely agree with this!  If I ask to have a shirt laundered and pressed just as they would a man’s shirt – and this is just a straight forward oxford – I still get charged three times the price. 

  • Sarah

    Great article, however, I don’t think you need to concede this point “Therefore, women demand more from health insurance … and pay for it.”  If women seek out preventative care disproportionately to men, we may in fact be saving on long term health care costs to insurance companies through early diagnosis and treatment.

    • geoffrobinson

       I said this above, but I’ll mention it again. Preventative care doesn’t make health care cheaper over the long term. You have a bunch of additional tests and visits. And you may catch something else early but as time goes on you are going to get something else.

      And if you don’t go to the doctor, you wind up suddenly dead. That’s pretty cheap in terms of health care payments.

      • Julie

         Right, because every possible illness you may catch for not taking care of yourself will make you wind up suddenly dead…

  • Kgal1298

    This is also why many hate Obama’s health care initiatives they tend to be in favor of making things more affordable, but making insurance companies pay more. Yet people are against the Obama Care because many of them think it will hurt them. I for one benefitted since I was able to stay on my moms until 26. Also, womens health care isn’t fair. Viagra can be covered, but birth control is on the cusp of being covered, but people are bitching about it. There is nothing right about this women also still only make 77 cents to the dollar than men. This world sucks that’s for sure. Hopefully health care evens out. I think if memory serves me right women still live longer hmmm gee wonder why? Maybe because they actually go to preventative care? But who knows maybe insurance companies would prefer us to die young. I hate health care, but it’s necessary. 

    • Jane Smith

      Actually, much as I hate to say it, it would seem that women living longer would be a negative from an insurance company viewpoint, as the longer life produces more medical care requirements and expenses . . . just plain old fashioned statistics . . . stacked against us.  The fact is, the longer the life (assuming you are covered by insurance) the longer the expense exists for the insurance company.

  • Lauren Hildreth

    There is not enough evidence in this article to support the idea that some sort of gender disparity in expenses (which do not equate to taxes!) exists.  Women’s products cost more because the women who buy them want to feel that they are getting special items that are made just for them.  

    However, your suggestion that women buy the generic, unisex items is the perfect solution to this supposed discrimination.  No one forces women to buy products that are marketed to them (and let’s remember for a moment that marketing is ALWAYS intended get people–men and women–to spend more).  There’s nothing really unfair about women’s shampoo costing more than men’s, because a woman always has the option of buying the $2.00 bottle of Suave.  

    It’s fine if you want to have the health insurance conversation, as those are costs that we often don’t get to choose–but it should not be part of a conversation about the “fairness” and ethics of the price of toiletries and dry cleaning.

    • Hiddenmithril

       I agree on the toiletry. I buy unisex toiletries for sure, and I don’t really see a problem with them charging more for something if there has been something added, even if it is just a coloring. People can make wise choices (like not caring if the product is blue or pink, so long as it does it’s job well), or unwise ones (like mindlessly buying something -because- it’s pink and sparkly).

  • ghanedi

    Actually prices are higher at a dry cleaner because usually women’s button ups have stretch to them and they would be ruined by mechanical processing. Also, they’re usually cut quite a bit differently (to conform to a woman’s shape) which makes it a pain in the butt to press. Speaking from experience, I used to be able to press 5 mens shirts for every one women’s shirt (especially the cheap ones because they never match up).

    • jules

      To add to your point, my parents own a dry cleaning business and it’s not just the women who have to be charged more for fitted button ups – men who choose to wear more fitted shirts are also charged more. 

  • Steve

    According to John Hopkins schools of Medicine and Public Health, women are 10% more likely (per driver) to be involved in a car crash than women.  However, on average, men drive more often and are more likely to be killed when they do have crashes. This has always translated to higher automobile insurance premiums for males. Are we wanting to outlaw that too, because this will drive insurance premiums higher for women in order to compensate.  Fair is fair, right?

    • Steve

      I mean to say that women are 10% more likely than men to be involved in a car crash.

      • CurlySue

        Some states have already banned gender discrimination pricing for auto insurance.

        • Steve

          States should stay out of the marketing business, and business in general, until they can show that they can, at a minimum, balance their own books.

    • DQ

      AMEN! And what about the draft?

  • Elizabubbles

    I’d like to point out a couple things:
    First, women WANT the products that smell nice and have glitter in them, which I would think would cost more to make.
    Second, health insurance for women costs more because WOMEN CAN GET PREGNANT. Your insurance provider can’t drop you if you get pregnant, and most women -at some point in their life- will get pregnant. Healthy babies cost around $8k; that’s what your higher insurance payments pay for.

    • Hiddenmithril

       Well what happens if you have health insurance (as I do and as this article points out DOES NOT COVER MATERNITY) and you get pregnant? Insurance with maternity insurance, at least for me, when I was comparison shopping about 6 months ago, is often far more, $100 more a month in many cases. That is not the insurance mentioned here though. I opened up an extra savings account as my “baby savings,” rather than paying the exorbitant fee for maternity coverage, at least until I am trying to become pregnant. But what this article is saying is that even if I choose a plan that does not cover me if I am pregnant, I will be paying more than a man with similar, or even worse age/health.

      • Elizabubbles

        I apologize, I overlooked the part of the article stating that fact. I’ve been lucky, my insurance has always been through my employer, and has always covered maternity.

      • Steve

        That may be true, but did you overlook the part of the article that talks about how, even without maternity considered, healthy women tend to make use of their insurance coverage more than healthy men do?  Well, checkups, etc.?  Those things cost money, and men tend to avoid doctors more than women.

        • terrimerritts

          On the other hand, if we women go and get preventative check-ups, we will cost less in the long run than the men who don’t get preventative checkups and then wind up with very expensive cancers and heart problems that cost a lot to treat. I have several male friends and relatives who refused to get regular preventative check ups and wound up having heart surgeries and cancer surgeries not to mention chemo. 

          • geoffrobinson

             Preventative check ups does not mean costing less. That doesn’t make it a bad idea, but it doesn’t mean that it will cost less over the long haul.

        • Hiddenmithril

           Just as terrimerritts pointed out, “avoiding doctors” is not in fact equal to costing less, in the long haul. When this avoidance leads to hospitalizations and surgeries, preventative care is far more economical. I avoid going to the doctor as much as is sensible, but I get basic preventative care done because I certainly do not want to end up with major problems getting out of control.

          • geoffrobinson

             Avoiding doctors does mean costing less money in the long haul. You get sick, you eventually get to the doctor, you have advanced cancer, you die in a week.

          • Asdf

            Skipping check ups now might mean higher costs later, but if “later” is covered by Medicare then the insurance company has, indeed, saved money on you.

  • redfox61

    I always thought that the costs were high being that my paycheck is less than it should be despite better work.   I have to fight with my healthcare coverage every time I go to the doctor even when I go to an approved doctor because they don’t want to pay for it.  It takes 6 months for them to approve payment and I still have to pay the doctor everything they don’t pay.  It is even worse if you are considered close to the “donut age” for medicare.  My daughter who lives in Florida had her tubes cut after her last pregnancy because it is too great of a strain on her body to be pregnant ( she has 2 healthy children after 2 high-risk pregnancies)  Her health insurance was dropped after the last baby was born because the insurance only covers women who can become pregnant.  Get that one.

  • Steve

    This is entirely about marketing, and quite a one-sided viewpoint that really only looks at women’s products.  Women aren’t require to buy them.  They choose to.  They pick the more expensive product.  That’s why marketer’s sell it to them.  But it doesn’t happen just to women.  When’s the last time you compared men’s razors with women’s?  Not even close.  Yup, we can both buy disposable Bics just as we can both buy Suave.  But we don’t.  This isn’t anyone’s fault but our own.

    • terrimerritts

      How is it that women can choose to wear men’s clothing and shoes? Why is it that the men’s and women’s products that had the exact same composition of ingredients cost more for the women’s version though the company rep was lying and saying the women’s product had different ingredients when actually it did not. Why should a pair of men’s shoes have a higher import tariff than a smaller pair of identical women’s sneakers? 

      • Lauren Hildreth

        @terrimerritts:disqus , no one is saying that the only option is for women to buy men’s products.  In fact, the solution (for women that feel they pay too much for products created/branded for women) is simply to find items that cost less.  If a woman considers clothes at J.Crew to be too expensive, she can go to Banana Republic… or the Gap… or H&M…or Target…or Goodwill.  There are all different price points.  We don’t all buy the same things because we don’t value the same things (e.g., low price/high price, designer labels, “eco-conscious” products, et al.).  

        As for your shoe example–what if the men’s shoes are handmade in Italy from calf’s leather?  And the women’s shoes are made out of canvas using mostly machines in China?  Well, the women’s shoes are going to cost less to manufacture than the men’s shoes, and they will cost less to import, too.  

        Moreover, I wouldn’t place too much stock in what this writer is saying, since she conflates several issues and relies on vague claims to support her weak argument.   

        • Rose

           My issue is that at the same store (Target in this case), the price point for a simple product can vary widely. For example, I looked at plain black shorts in the Women’s Plus section, and the cheapest thing was $25. In the Men’s section, I could find a comparable pair that suited my purposes for just $8! Explain that one to me!

  • Casggp

    What gets me is that Cone found that the tariffs were higher for women, when women generally consume more than men in terms of clothes, shoes, etc.  For men’s clothing, there has to be advertising, prices are lowered to draw them in.  For women, no advertising necessary because we don’t need it.  My friend sold men suits at Macy’s and he told me that the name brands would get slashed by the hundreds of $$$$.  On top of that, the suits would get real garment bags, “maintenance” care kits, etc. thrown in.  When I buy a suit at Macy’s they put it in a plastic garment bag, that’s it.  I’ve seen men just buy jeans and a shirt (like the urban brands) and get a garment bag!  The treatment is totally different.

  • Rockstar_chick87

    It’s also becasue the demand of these certain products is higher with women than it is with men. Men tend to care more about entertainment and food. Women tend to care more about clothes, haircare, makeup, shoes, etc. Higher Demand = Higher Prices. As long as someone is willing to pay that high price, it will continue to be high. If the demand were to plummet then of course the price will drop. If women want equal pricing, then they all need to shop like a man, but that’ll never happen.

  • christine

    I just bought mens disposable razors and they were about 25% cheaper than womens at Target. Pink is not a requirement! I’ve also been infuriated with the dry cleaners for years now. They regularly offer a coupon for laundered business shirts and will not honor it for Womens shirts!  They don’t advertise it as a Men’s only coupon. Is there any recourse? Unfortunately, discrimination against women is still very much alive.

    • Michelle

      Report them to the BBB – that’s fraud.

  • Boundbound71

    No woman is required to shave with a woman’s razor, or use shaving cream OR scented soaps, for that matter! I dry-shave, then use mineral oil on my legs afterward. NO RAZOR BURNS!! I’m a happy camper with that!!  =))
    And I don’t see what the big deal over Deodorant is, anyway. As long as you don’t “smell”, who cares if you smell like SPORT stick or RAIN scent…

  • Eileen S

    I don’t buy the excuse that a woman’s shirt costs more to dry clean because “the machine couldn’t fit shirts from a smaller person.” Do they charge more for a boy’s shirt – which is smaller?

  • Cherelle26

    I remember going into target in the women’s section there was a 6 pack of Dove unscented soap that cost the same amount as an 8 pack of Dove unscented soap in the men’s section. I thought that didn’t make sense when i saw it but I guess that is the norm.

  • Ryne Smith

    If insurance companies cannot discriminate, then it ceases to be insurance.  That is the the entire premise.  We are not created equal so people should not treat us as if we are.  If women have more medical issues on average and therefore have more medical expenses, then it makes sense that the insurance should cost more.  My wife is going to school to practice medicine and I am trying to get my small business running.  I didn;t know much about the ACA until I decided that I should look into it since it will effect how my business operates.  It is a nightmare, especially for business owners!

  • D9

    Agree for some stuff, but in the case of healthcare, if you use more you should pay more (in a nutshell)

  • Jane Smith

    The obvious solution to the dry cleaning issue is, strive to buy ladies shirts that can survive the washing machine by taking a look at the cleaning instructions and considering that as part of the purchase decision, which can eliminate the dry cleaning expense completely.

    While I know that is not practical all of the time (especially if you wear a uniform in the performance of your job), I have also in the past taken to learning to sew and then buying the material and either making it myself or having someone else sew it for me.

    The interesting thing about buying material is, sometimes the instructions for the store-bought items will say “dry clean only” and yet the care instructions for the material it is made with (from the exact same material that has yet to be made into the shirt) states “machine wash . . .”  sometimes cold, sometimes warm.  And sometimes the instructions will say “machine wash delicate OR dry clean”.  But I have yet to find an already sewn article of clothing that says “machine wash OR dry clean”.  Usually it’s either one or the other, unfortunately most of the time the dry clean option.

  • johnAnon

    Well until every “ladies night” is shut down and men aren’t stuck with the bill 70% of the time due to cultural expectations.. I can’t show too much sympathy here…