Personal finance expert MP Dunleavey

Women in Red

Why it costs more to be a woman

From haircuts to health insurance, moisturizers to mortgages, women are charged more than men for essentially the same stuff. There's only 1 way to fight this bunk.

By MP Dunleavey
MSN Money

The January issue of Consumer Reports just came in the mail, and what I found on Page 8 shocked me. There were two bottles of Nivea body wash: one for men priced at $5.49 and one for women costing $7.49.

Why the 2-buck difference? Nivea's reason, according to Consumer Reports senior editor Tod Marks, is that the women's product is made with "skin-sensation technology," which makes it more expensive.

I tried to imagine a bigger load of bunk. I failed.

Consumer Reports compared six products that come in his-and-hers versions (or a neutral edition and a feminine one): shaving cream, antiperspirant, pain reliever, eye cream, body wash and razors. The magazine found that products aimed specifically at women can cost more than 50% extra.

OK, you might say, is it really worth jumping up and down about the cost of soap and razors?

Yes, because the body wash surcharge is just the latest in a long line of puzzling, outrageous gender-based price differences. Whether you're talking haircuts or health insurance, moisturizers or mortgages, women are typically charged more than men for the necessities of life.

Why?

The same but not equal

According to Consumer Reports, sometimes the company in question provided a decent reason.

For example, Barbasol Soothing Aloe shaving cream, 11 ounces, sells for $1.69. Barbasol Pure Silk shaving cream for women, 9.5 ounces, sells for $2.49.

As a Barbasol rep explained, "80% of women like to shave in the shower," so the product needs a rust-resistant aluminum-bottom can. The company also adds more fragrance. These things cost more.

OK, fine. But why is Neutrogrena's Hydrating Eye Reviver eye cream (0.5 ounce) selling for $10 when its girly twin, Ageless Essentials Continuous Hydration Eye (also 0.5 ounce), goes for $15?

Because we're suckers?

That's part of it. Didn't I once admit in this very column to paying some horrifying amount for deluxe shampoo and conditioner?

But there is a lot more going on beneath all this lather.

Not just moisturizers

Barbasol justifies charging 70% more per ounce for the female-branded shaving cream by claiming it meets a woman's needs. As Marks says, "You're paying for a convenience factor."

Say your boyfriend tells you that his apartment costs $500 a month and that one just like it is available in his building. When you go to check it out, the landlord tells you the rent will be $850 -- 70% more.

That's crazy, right? That would never happen in real life, would it? Don't bet your depleted dollars on it:

  • A 2006 study (.pdf download) by the Consumer Federation of America indicated that women were 32% more likely than men of similar income to carry subprime mortgages. Those subprime interest rates topped 7.66% when the average prime mortgage rate was 5.87%. On a $100,000 loan, that's nearly $120 a month more -- about $43,000 more over 30 years. Women were 41% more likely to end up with high-cost subprime loans, at rates above 9.66%.
  • Most recently, during the debate over health care, another nasty reality was brought back into the spotlight: Many insurance companies charge women higher premiums and/or impose harsher terms (by rejecting claims or curtailing coverage), especially for those of childbearing age. Examples ranged from 22% to 50% higher, depending on age and state.

That adds up to a lot more than a buck here or there at Walgreens.

When I posted this topic on the Women in Red message board, many readers chimed in with their own examples of the higher cost of female living: jeans, cars, razors. (Others noted that women can sometimes finagle discounts that no man could pull off -- tears and traffic tickets being a particularly strong example.)

The gender price gap also was documented in the early 1990s, when former New York Times reporter Frances Cerra Whittelsey wrote a book with consumer advocate Ralph Nader called "Why Women Pay More."

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You might not remember the book, but you might recall the outcry: Women were paying more for dry cleaning! For haircuts! For cars!

In one case that Whittelsey reported, two women sued Saks Fifth Avenue because they were charged to have their evening dresses altered, while men got tuxedo alterations for free.

Pay more and make less

When you look at each product or service individually, the affront doesn't appear so egregious. But it all adds up: a few bucks for alterations, a percentage point or two in mortgage interest, higher health care co-pays.

Then consider that, on average, a woman still earns about 78 cents to a man's dollar (or $78,000 compared with $100,000 paid to a male colleague with the same level of experience). And women with children are less likely to be hired and are offered lower salaries than are fathers or women without children, according to Stanford University researcher Shelley Correll.

So why are women being charged more? Ellen Galinsky, the president of Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit policy-research group in New York, speculates that companies play to female tastes because they are aware that women make most household consumer choices, "so it's a way for them to increase their revenue."

Buy like a man

The only solution is to vote with your dollars, Galinsky says. "I would hope that consumers would exercise their consumer power about this and perhaps gain another form of equity" -- by saving money and sending a message that we're not playing this game.

That's what posters on the Consumer Reports blog are doing. A couple of examples:

  • "My mother used men's Rogaine because the women's version cost significantly more. It came in a pink box but was otherwise chemically identical."
  • "I use M Lotion for Men, a moisturizer made by Clinique. It is in fact Clinique's Dramatically Different, a widely known and used women's moisturizer. It costs a little more than half of what the women's one does. A clerk told me once -- quite matter-of-factly -- that it was priced that way because Clinique knew that men were not going to spend as much on personal care products as women were accustomed to doing."

So, gals, it's up to us. Whenever you make a purchasing decision, do a little research to find out whether you're paying that special price for being a woman. Then buy like a man and get what you want for a better rate.

Published Dec. 15, 2009

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