Researchers in gender inequality often point to what’s known as the “pink tax,” a price discrepancy that calls out products and services marketed to women that cost more than identical or nearly identical versions marketed to men. About five years ago, the issue got a lot of attention when New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs found many instances of gendered pricing when it examined 794 products sold in the city for consumers of all ages. However, researchers have been noticing and analyzing this phenomenon since at least the 1990s.

Key Takeaways

  • Academic studies, government studies, and women going about their daily lives have encountered many instances of products marketed toward women that cost more than nearly identical products targeted toward men—and far fewer examples of the opposite.
  • The pink tax is not an actual tax, but many apparel products designed for women have higher import tariffs than men’s counterparts.
  • A handful of state and local governments have regulations to prohibit gendered price discrimination. The U.S. federal government does not, though bills have been introduced.

Attempts to Regulate the Pink Tax

The pink tax is not an actual tax. When a company sells a pink product (the female version) for more than a blue product (the male version), the additional revenue from the pink product does not go to the government.

“Repeal the pink tax” is a marketing slogan. Gender-based price discrepancies are not a tax and therefore can’t be repealed.

The “tampon tax,” by contrast, is an actual sales tax that many states impose on feminine hygiene products, a cost that’s largely borne by menstruating girls and women (though also, in many cases, by their fathers or husbands). This is a separate issue from the pink tax, and although it’s related, we won’t be discussing it here. The pink tax also doesn’t refer to the cost of items such as lipstick and menstrual products that many women use and pay for throughout their lives but that most men do not.

Several states have passed laws against discriminatory gender-based pricing of products and services. There’s also been at least one attempt to pass such a law at the federal level. The goal is to regulate seemingly unjust price discrepancies out of existence. After all, women already earn less income; why should they also pay more for equivalent products and services?

California

In 1996, Governor Pete Wilson of California implemented the Gender Tax Repeal Act of 1995 requiring merchants to charge women and men the same price if a service took the same time, cost, and skill to provide. It was specifically aimed at services such as haircuts, dry cleaning, clothing alterations, car repairs, and other services—not at products.

The bill’s author, Assemblywoman Jackie Speier, told the Los Angeles Times that it was the first state law of its kind. At the time, the term “gender tax” was used to describe this type of apparent price discrimination. An earlier version of the bill that also targeted products didn’t pass.

New York City

Similarly, in 1998, New York City’s then-mayor, Rudy Giuliani, signed a bill aimed at preventing retail establishments such as haircutters and dry cleaners from basing prices solely on gender. It allowed the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs to collect fines from violators. Specifically, the law prohibits the display of discriminatory pricing, meaning you shouldn’t see a sign that says “women’s haircut $45, men’s haircut $25” when you walk into a New York City hairdresser. New Yorkers can report gender-pricing complaints through the city’s 311 website.

Miami-Dade County

This Florida county’s gender price discrimination ordinance applies to both goods and services. Miami-Dade County’s Consumer Services Department is in charge of enforcing this local law, which applies to all types of sellers, from individual to corporate. It prohibits price discrimination based solely on the customer’s gender but allows price differences based on the time, difficulty, or cost of providing a good or service. Complaints can be reported to the department in writing. Aggrieved parties can sue the violating party for damages, attorney’s fees, and court costs.

United States House of Representatives

Speier, who sponsored the 1995 California act, also introduced a Pink Tax Repeal Act at the federal level in 2016. The bill has been reintroduced several times but has not passed. Its purpose is “to prohibit the pricing of consumer products and services that are substantially similar if such products or services are priced differently based on the gender of the individuals for whose use the products are intended or marketed or for whom the services are performed or offered.” Companies violating the law would be considered in violation of the Federal Trade Commission’s unfair or deceptive acts or practices rules affecting interstate commerce.

Unequal Tariffs on Women’s Goods: The Real Pink Tax

Most discussions of the pink tax are not about an actual tax, but in one instance they are: import tariffs. In the United States, clothing companies pay higher import tariffs on women’s items—such as silk shirts, wool jackets, cotton suits, suit jackets, blazers, leather shoes, and golf shoes—according to a study published by Texas A&M University’s Mosbacher Institute, which focuses on trade, economics, and public policy. On the men’s apparel side, import tariffs are higher on cotton shirts, wool suits, synthetic fiber suits, and swimwear. Some goods have no gender-based tariff difference, while others have large differences. Overall, tariffs on women’s items are higher.

Clothing companies can address this discrepancy by increasing the price of the item with the higher import tariff, which may result in a gender-based price difference that is actually based on the item’s cost. The other option is to price both items equally (assuming they are otherwise the same), which means either the producer, the retailer, or the consumer takes a hit. A 2007 lawsuit by clothing companies against the U.S. government tried but failed to eliminate these tariff discrepancies.

The tariff discrepancy persists. A 2020 study published in the journal American Political Science Review describes a study covering 20 years’ worth of tariffs on men’s and women’s apparel in 167 countries. The study’s authors found that “imports of women’s goods, on average, are taxed 0.7% more than imports of men’s goods” and contribute to the pink tax. They also found that increasing women’s representation in legislatures could help remedy the problem.

Government’s Role in Gendered Price Discrimination

“Governments can contribute to gendered price discrimination through distinct tariff rates on...products that are essentially identical in form, save for the gender of their target consumer. Higher import taxes on women’s versions of goods are in turn passed on to wholesalers, then retailers, and finally imposed upon women consumers.” —Timm Betz, David Fortunato, and Diana Z. O’Brien, “Women’s Descriptive Representation and Gendered Import Tax Discrimination.”

Why the Pink Tax Is Not a $1,351 Problem

A 1994 analysis conducted for the law that the California Senate eventually passed as the Gender Tax Repeal Act of 1995 (AB 1100) stated that women were paying $1,351 more per year for similar products and services compared to men. This 1994 figure is still widely quoted as if it were current. For example, the University of Missouri-Kansas City includes the figure in a short write-up on the pink tax, or #AxThePinkTax on social media.

It is highly unlikely that this figure is still accurate, and simply adjusting it for inflation wouldn’t make it accurate either. Changes in product prices based on supply and demand, along with campaigns to neutralize gender discrepancies, have certainly altered the amount since then. It’s understandable, though, that no one has attempted to update the figure, as performing that type of calculation is a big undertaking. Nevertheless, quoting outdated estimates doesn’t do women any favors.

The Bottom Line

The pink tax may not be an actual tax, except in the case of disparate import tariffs on women’s apparel. However, academic studies, government studies, and women going about their daily lives have encountered hundreds of instances of products marketed toward women costing more than nearly identical products targeted toward men—and far fewer examples of the opposite. Evidence of gendered price discrimination clearly exists, even if there is room to debate why it exists or how serious or costly a problem it is.