Earlier this year, an editor from a women's financial planning website, LearnVest, posted an article suggesting that there is a “woman tax.” The post indicated that products are priced differently depending on the gender they target. This price difference results in women paying more per year than men for similar products. The editor got the idea for the post after visiting her local dry cleaner where she discovered that it costs $4 more to clean her plain, white shirt than it would for an identical men's shirt.
A 2010 study by Consumer Reports further bolsters the editor's theory. The study found that products directed at women could cost up to 50% more than similar products for men. Of the products studied, razors provide the best example of a product that is marketed differently to men and women, but is identical in performance and features. Although men and women's razors are exactly the same product, Consumer Reports found the women's version sells for 50 cents more.
The study also looked at products that are marketed differently to men and women because they do have some differences. These differences, however, are minimal and don't account for the larger price tag on the women's version. For example, Neutrogena makes eye creams that are marketed differently to men and women: Hydrating Eye Reviver for men and Ageless Essentials Continuous Hydration Eye for women. The key ingredients are identical, but the women's version costs $5 more. I find it hard to believe that the synthetic fragrance in the women's version really costs the manufacturer an additional $5.
Megan Duesterhaus of the University of Central Florida is the co-author of another study that looked at gender-based pricing. She summed this issue up nicely when she 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." It is this essentialist thinking that promulgates the idea that men and women are so different that they need to have separate products. Although Duesterhaus points out that many personal care goods are unisex, such as toothpaste.
An article in Marie Claire broadens the focus of both the Consumer Reports and University of Central Florida studies by looking at the import tariffs on men and women's products. According to Michael Cone, a trade attorney from New York City who was interviewed for the piece, women's products may cost more because of higher import tariffs. For example, women's shoes are taxed at 10%, while men's are taxed at only 8.5%. Import tariffs vary in this way for numerous other products.
So how do companies "genderize" their products such that they can charge more for the women's version? According to an article in Gender and Consumer Behavior called "Gender Identity, Gender Salience and Symbolic Consumption," it is a combination of the visible design features, advertising, promotion, and distribution of the product that caters to one sex or the other. The basic characteristics of the goods are acceptable by either gender, but the end product is modified to include symbols that identify it with one gender. These symbols are conveyed either through a masculine or feminine image on the packaging or by strongly associating the product with sex-role stereotypes in the product's advertising.
An older study in Advances in Consumer Research called "Sex Roles and Consumer Perceptions of Promotions, Products, and Self" found that the gender of the individual seen promoting the product was the most important cue in the formation of product gender, followed by who purchases the product and then by who uses the product. Product placement is a factor too. Stores keep gender-specific products in different areas and by doing so vendors are able to hinder comparison shoppers from seeing the price difference. Few consumers actually go see what male or non-gendered products cost if they are not sitting right next to each other.
Deodorant provides an excellent example of a product that has identical ingredients for men and women, but is marketed separately. I was curious about these differences and decided to do my own research. I visited Degree brand deodorant's website and was surprised how quickly I could see the gender differences. The homepage forces you to select either "men" (button on the left) or "women" (button on the right). A user cannot even enter the website without first deciding which gender's products they would like to view.
The men's site has a dark color scheme, with grays and blacks dominating. The women's site is much lighter, with green, yellow and white dominating the screen. If you scroll through the various products, it's easy to see that there are men and women's versions of the same deodorants. The men's deodorant with "motion sense" is called "Adrenaline Series and the women's is called "Expert Protection." The ingredients are identical except for the available scents: men can choose the "Adventure" scent that has hints of musk, while women can choose the fresh scent of tiara flower.
All of these marketing signals reinforce stereotypes regarding men and women. Men are supposed to be tough and therefore need a deodorant that conveys strength and power. Names like "Extreme" and "V12" along with descriptions that promise to "cool that roaring engine inside you" bolster this ideal. Women, on the other hand, are supposed to be demure and thus need deodorants that with "a smooth and soft fragrance of white rose petals and jasmine buds." Again, these are the exact same product with completely different marketing strategies to appeal to gender stereotypes.
As annoying and ridiculous as I find this type of marketing, it frustrates me more that the prices are not the same despite the products being almost identical. At my local Target store, a stick of Degree for women is $3.99 for 2.6 ounces while men's is $3.49 for 2.7 ounces. The price and size differences are subtle, but they are still there. I'm somewhat at a loss for how to discourage this practice in personal care products. I tend to use gender neutral products, so that's a start. I will continue to use The Crystal as my deodorant of choice. Unfortunately, after decades of gender-neutral advertising, just this year, The Crystal came out with a "men's" version of their product. At least the men's version is formulated differently, so the different marketing is somewhat justified.