Written by: Aishwarya Murthy
Edited by: Abigail Goh
Illustrations by: Sneha Grace
The cost of being a woman is expensive. In our current system, society appears to have no qualms in accepting women’s earnings but does very little if not anything at all, to protect them from inequitable pricing policies that diminish their contributions. This insidious exploitation is most commonly referred to as ‘The Pink Tax’. This is essentially a system of gender-based discriminatory pricing strategies that are imposed upon goods and services marketed towards women by manufacturers and businesses.
While the Pink Tax itself is not a “real” tax, it does not make its financial impact on women and female consumers any less real.
The patriarchal and outdated concepts of gender norms and gender identities imposed and solidified by the capitalistic and exploitative nature of certain industries often oversimplify women and female consumer’s preferences by equating them to specific and obsolete stereotypes.
For example, rebranding items on the assumption that women prefer products and packaging using bright “feminine” colours such as pink or purple and sweet-smelling scents for personal care products. This gendered marketing strategy allows for businesses to overcharge women for the same products that men use, that have the same essential function but have superficial design changes. This marketing strategy is used throughout a woman’s lifespan. It affects women in all age brackets, from babies and children’s toys and books to women’s personal care items and clothing as adults to senior healthcare products.
According to a 2015 study of gender-based pricing in New York City, it was found that women’s products cost 7% more than similar products for men, including 13% more for personal care products, 8% more for adult clothing, and 8% more for senior/home health care products. The degree of markups of price discrepancies for consumer goods between genders varies at different stages, the least being in babies and children’s products and the most in adult personal care products such as shampoos, razors, lotion body wash etc. However, if we were to aggregate this additional markup throughout the course of a female consumer’s lifetime, it would have an enormous financial impact.
The beauty industry alone is worth $512 billion USD globally, with its marketing strategy aggressively targeting women and trying to convince them they need a myriad of products to be deemed beautiful and successful. The Pink Tax costs from products promoted by the beauty industry are also compounded by the Grooming Gap —which is the extra amount of time and money women workers must spend conforming to normative beauty standards in order to appear attractive and professional. The promotion of some of these products such as skin-lightening creams, weight-loss pills and anti-ageing products to name a few are problematic and can create an unhealthy fixation on our appearance by exploiting (or even creating) insecurities, which can lead to physical and psychological health issues.
Periods are not a ‘Luxury’
Furthermore, the ‘Tampon Tax’ which falls under ‘The Pink Tax’ is a common term used to describe the pricing of feminine hygiene products such as tampons and pads. They are subject to a Sales Tax/Goods and Services Tax (GST) or Value-Added Tax (VAT) as they are considered to be a “luxury” goods in many countries. This tax is controversial because it is not given tax exemption status from the VAT, unlike many other essential products considered a necessity. This is grossly unfair and discriminatory against women and people who menstruate as feminine hygiene is biological and not a choice; therefore these products should not be considered a “luxury good” as it is a necessity. These additional taxes on essential feminine hygiene products further entrench women in period poverty, leaving them torn between choosing other essential items for survival such as food, and in many cases preventing women from attending school or work or feeling comfortable participating in society.
Activists have since started multiple campaigns using the hashtags #TamponTax, #AxTheTax and #FreePeriods on social media platforms such as Twitter to encourage state policies to eliminate the tax on feminine hygiene products and provide subsidies for menstrual products to low-income families. Since 2004, a number of countries including Kenya, India, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Nigeria, Lebanon, Australia, Uganda, Colombia, Trinidad and Tobago, Canada, Rwanda and Germany have eliminated or reduced sales taxes on menstrual products after global and domestic awareness campaigns and protest movements.
Most recently, in November 2020 Scotland became the world’s first country to introduce the Period Products (Free Provision) Bill, making period products free and accessible in public facilities nationwide to “anyone who needs them” by creating a legal obligation for the government to provide it for them. This happened after years of campaigning for gender equality and dignity issues that affect everyone who menstruates and after a successful pilot program launched in 2017 by the Scottish Government that gave women and girls in low-income households in Aberdeen free sanitary products for six months. The Bill itself was introduced in April 2019 by Scottish parliament member Monica Lennon in, who has been campaigning to end period poverty since 2016. It was then unanimously approved by all Scottish Parliament members, and the law came into full effect on January 12th 2021.
The Pink Service Charge we never asked for
In addition to facing price discrimination in the purchase of goods, women also face the 'Pink Tax' in the service industry. Whether it be in hair styling where women end up paying more for haircuts than men or even when it comes to dry cleaning, where women are charged more to clean their clothing. There has long since been an underlying assumption that these discrepancies in pricing demonstrate the differences in the intricacies and details of the clothing, or greater difficulty in styling women's hair, or the additional scents used in hygiene products.
Instead of basing the prices on the hairstylist’s skillset or the quality of work offered, the prices are still primarily determined based on antiquated notions that women have long hair and men have short hair, so women’s colouring and styling takes more time and effort. These stereotypes fail to consider that these binary gender-specific notions of hairstyling are outdated and non-inclusive and that salons should instead adopt gender-neutral pricing so that men, women, trans, non-binary and other gender identities alike should be charged equally for equivalent services.
Moreover, women are also financially discriminated against in terms of banking whereby they often receive lower credit scores, on average, nine points lower than men’s, even though they typically carry less debt. Additionally, there are potential gender biases against women in getting credit card approvals, even when they have high credit scores due to biases in the algorithms that determine potential credit card owner’s creditworthiness. It is also important to keep in mind that women face financial discrimination on various levels, the Pink Tax is distributed throughout multiple facets of their lives and combined with the wage gap. Given that in the US, women on average make 79 cents for every dollar a man makes, and that’s just for white women. Women of colour face even more barriers and make on average, roughly 74 cents for every dollar a man makes. The gender wage gap, coupled with the compounded financial cost of the pink tax accumulated throughout a lifetime leaves women at a serious financial disadvantage.
Unfortunately, the Pink Tax also extends to healthcare and unfairly impacts women who are disabled as well in terms of insurance costs. One instance of this is that insurance companies typically charge women higher prices for disability insurance, health insurance, long-term care insurance and many other types of insurance. This is due to the assumption that women tend to live longer, are more likely to be injured, are more likely to be caretakers, and incur additional costs with reproductive health care. Moreover, depending on the type of insurance/provider, many of the costs incurred with reproductive healthcare expenses such as pregnancy costs and using assisted reproductive technology may not be covered in their health insurance plan and can leave women paying these costs out of pocket.
Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge how the Pink Tax also disadvantages intersecting identities such as those who identify as LGBTQ+ who are also disenfranchised by the binary notions and stereotypes associated with binary gender norms and gender identities and are often left out of the conversation. Additionally, many countries still lack the necessary legal protections to combat and correct income inequities that exist on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, contributing to a higher rate of poverty found in LGBTQ+ families/households.
“In democracies, an equal division of power between women and men would reduce the annual penalty on female consumers by an average of $324 million per country and $15 billion across countries.”
That’s on average, $1,300 a year and approximately $135,100 in an entire lifetime per woman.
Without protective measures implemented, women are incurring high financial and social costs by missing out on opportunities to invest in themselves, their businesses, accumulate wealth and participate more robustly in the economy. In a society that already expects so much more from women for them to be able to even get their foot in the door and be recognised for their skills, talents and abilities, let alone survive within this capitalist system, it’s completely unjust that there have to be extra added opportunity costs in so many dimensions—making it increasingly difficult to achieve financial and economic equity.
In the current system, women’s economic empowerment is an essential part of achieving gender equality and realising women's rights. Empowerment comes in all shapes and forms, but as suggested by the UN Women, we can begin with ensuring “women’s ability to participate equally in existing markets, having access to and control over productive resources, access to decent work, control over their own time, lives and bodies; and increased voice, agency and meaningful economic decision-making at all levels from the household to international institutions.”
We can achieve this by using our collective voices to call out discrimination, make more ethical and informed consumer decisions and reevaluate our own notions of gender norms in order to to eliminate the Pink Tax where we can and alleviate the existential cost of being a woman in this world. Yet this also shines an essential light on the need for representation of more women in different sectors in the hopes that they can advocate for more fair and equitable policies, legislation and business practices.