If this sounds like gender discrimination, it is. If it sounds illegal, it isn’t. Federal civil rights laws prohibit discrimination in employment and housing, but don’t apply to the sale of goods and services. Some cities and states have adopted anti-discrimination laws covering the sale of goods and services, but are often vaguely worded and permit differing prices if the amount of labor required differs by gender.
John Banzhaf, a professor at the George Washington University School of Law, says that this is a problem that has gone on for many years. “Even though it’s well recognized, people sit back and go, ‘Well, that’s just the way it is.’ And if you compare it with all the problems women face, it’s certainly not in the top one, three, even five.”
Gender pricing is a standard industry practice. A recent study by researchers at the University of Central Florida examined 200 sticks of deodorants sold at major drug store chains. They found that even though the only discernible difference was scent, women’s deodorants cost about 30 cents per ounce more than men’s. Megan Duesterhaus, one of the study’s authors, said “these companies have us convinced that men and women are so biologically different that we need completely different products, as though we are a different species.”
While spending a few extra cents on a deodorant is probably not going to dramatically affect the financial situations of thousands of women across the country, gender pricing in other markets might. Think about paying thousands more in interest charges over the life of a loan. In 2006, the Consumer Federation of America reported that women were 32% more likely than men to get costly, high-interest sub-prime loans – even in cases where the women had better credit histories and credit ratings than the men. Women often pay higher prices on durable goods – such as cars and major appliances – than men.
Do women really not care, is it rampant gender discrimination, or is something else going on? Some argue that the differences in the ways men and women shop may play a role. In the case of sub-prime loans, one theory is that women tend to rely on word-of-mouth recommendations when choosing a lender, while men tend to shop around for the lowest rates they can find. When it comes to durable goods, differences in negotiations may play a role. According to Ian Ayres, a professor at Yale Law School, says “the idea of just giving a discount to those who ask for one puts women at a strong disadvantage since they are less inclined to ask.”
Professor Ayres has been looking at this issue for decades. Twenty years ago, he published a landmark study that showed women were offered list prices about $200 dollars higher than the prices quoted to men at car dealerships. The study has been updated twice since its original publication, and the updates show similar results. Ayres argues that women who pay inflated prices are very lucrative customers to the car dealerships – and account for such a large portion of commissions. Salespeople are often willing to lose the sale to an informed customer just to go after the higher-priced deal with a female customer. “That’s the perversity of it. He may be willing to sacrifice your sale in order to charge higher prices to all women, just to make sure he doesn’t miss any home runs,” said Ayres. “It’s a search for suckers.”
My best advice for women? Pick your battles. It’s probably not a good idea to complain to the cashier at Target because your deodorant costs more, or flip out on your hair stylist about gender pricing discrimination while (s)he’s holding a pair of scissors. But when it comes to the big things – mortgages, cars, appliances, and other big-ticket items – speak up for yourself, be informed, and negotiate.