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The hidden tax women pay on just about everything

Mmm, women's shampoo that costs 48 percent more than the same product for men!
Mmm, women's shampoo that costs 48 percent more than the same product for men!
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Whether you're buying pink toys with your allowance as a kid or canes and compression socks in old age, it's cheaper to be a man and more expensive to be a woman.

The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs studied nearly 800 products in 35 categories that people buy and use throughout their life — everything from onesies and baby shoes to razors and deodorant.

Products marketed to women cost more than products marketed to men 42 percent of the time. And men's products cost more only 8 percent of the time. Over women's lifetimes, the report concludes, the differences can easily add up to thousands of dollars.

And all of this is legal. While some jurisdictions, including New York, have laws about charging men and women different prices for similar services, there are no laws about different prices for similar products.

The study found women's razors and razor cartridges cost 11 percent more than men's. Lotion marketed to women cost 11 percent more than lotion marketed to men. Even deodorant and body wash were more expensive for women.

But the worst offender was shampoo: men paid an average of $5.68 per bottle of shampoo, while women paid $8.39, a 48 percent difference.

There is no reason for this — men's and women's shampoo uses the same ingredients. And although other manufacturers of other personal care products justify the difference by saying, for example, that men buy razors more frequently than women, women use more shampoo than men. The report concluded that women are asked to pay more of the cost of research and development, a major expense for cosmetics companies, than men are.

Clothing is more expensive across the board

The differences the Department of Consumer Affairs found were pervasive — and infuriating.

Helmets and knee pads marketed to girls cost 13 percent more than similar products marketed to boys, on average. The difference on individual products could be even bigger, as in this case, where a pink helmet costs nearly twice as much as a blue one:

(New York City Department of Consumer Affairs)

And it's not just childhood — these back braces for men and women are basically identical, except that the men's brace uses slightly more fabric. But the women's brace costs $4 more:

(New York City Department of Consumer Affairs)

New York City, Washington, DC, California, and Virginia all have laws that make it illegal to charge men and women different prices for similar services. Instead, the prices are supposed to reflect differences in actual labor. So it's OK to charge more for dry cleaning dress shirts with ruffles, but not to charge more for women's dress shirts across the board.

But those laws are often ignored, and there are no similar laws stopping retailers from charging women more for similar products than men.

Gender is a social construct, and an expensive one

There are reasons why women's products might cost more. Women's clothing is cut differently; girls' clothing, the report noted, often had more expensive trimming, such as ribbons, ruffles, or glitter.

Razor companies have said they charge more for women's products because men buy razors more frequently, so over a lifetime it all evens out.

But there's a deeper reason, particularly for clothing and personal care products, as Danielle Kurtzleben wrote for Vox in 2014:

There's an obvious answer here: society expects women to look a certain way. Put into economics terms, there's a higher return on investment for beauty for women. Beauty products are becoming more popular among men, it's true, but expensive skin cream is still optional. For women, all those trappings are more necessary.

And that matters well beyond your bank account balance, because it reinforces socially constructed notions of what it means to be a woman…

So if it's hard to get angry about tiny sticks of expensive deodorant, think about it this way: you're paying extra to play a made-up role that society pays you less for inhabiting.