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The pink tax syndrome

Women pay more than men for certain comparable products. Widely criticised, this “tax” isn’t actually a price increase just for women, but rather a result of gendered marketing.

Coop City in Lausanne. In the supermarket, the “men’s razors” and “women’s hair removal” aisles are a few metres apart from each other. The men’s aisle is blue, green, yellow and orange. The women’s aisle is entirely pink. Both aisles have disposable razors, but not for the same price. The “Bic Twin Lady” pack for women includes 10 two-blade razors for 4.45 Swiss francs. In the men’s aisle, the “Bic Comfort 2”, a pack of 15 two-blade razors, costs 4.95 Swiss francs. That’s a much better deal. What’s the difference between the two razors? “Nothing,” says a salesperson. “It’s all packaging.”

Can a product be more expensive if it comes in a pink package? The pink tax is irking female consumers everywhere from Paris to New York. They don’t understand why they should have to pay more than men for comparable goods and services just because they have X chromosomes. Social media is full of examples of unequal prices, complete with photos and hashtags to support the outrage.

Several studies have confirmed the phenomenon. The authoritative study was conducted by the City of New York at the end of 2015. The Department of Consumer Affairs compared close to 800 products from 35 categories and concluded that women pay on average 7% more than men for comparable products. Personal hygiene, apparel, health products and children’s toys are the areas in which the pink tax is particularly high. More recently, Germany’s Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency published an investigation in 2017 on products and services. The report determined that price disparities are highest in hairstyling and dry-cleaning.

We asked Coop and Bic where the price difference came from for disposable razors. Coop blamed the manufacturer. “The sale price is set relative to the purchase price that we pay to the supplier,” said Ramón Gander, spokesman for Coop. He declined to give further details. Bic justified the prices, saying they were a result of differences in the products, and stated it does not set or encourage price differences between men’s and women’s razors with comparable features. “The ’Bic Comfort 2’ (for men) has a moisturising strip, which the ’Bic Twin Lady’ doesn’t have. Therefore, our recommended sales price for the ’Bic Comfort 2’ is higher than the price for the ’Twin Lady’,” said Benjamin Durant, in an email from the French group. In our email, however, we noted that the “Bic Comfort 2” was sold at a lower price than the “Twin Lady”, not at a higher price... Furthermore, in addition to being less expensive, men’s disposable razors are also higher quality compared to women’s razors.


“Gender disparity can favour women or men, depending on the product”


Beyond this specific example, it is very difficult to show evidence of the pink tax. It all depends on the products in question. “Gender disparity can favour women or men, depending on the product,” according to a report from the French government. In Switzerland, where no studies have been conducted on the subject, the Price Surveillance authority criticised the fact that women’s apparel is subject to higher customs duties than men’s apparel. This bizarre disparity is due to the fact that back in the day, men’s clothing was made from heavier fabrics than women’s (as a result, packages of women’s clothing were taxed more, as they contained more articles of clothing). “With the Federal Council’s recent decision to get rid of all customs duties on industrial products, this problem will finally be resolved,” said Beat Niederhauser, a deputy of the Price Surveillance authority. “As for other potential disparities between comparable products for men and women, such as razors for example, it is up to market competition.”

The pink tax is a hot topic because it is a part of the fight for gender equality. While the true extent of the pink tax remains debatable, “segmentation”, the type of marketing that the tax comes from, is well-known. “The idea is that the more a product seems to fit the needs of consumers, it can be sold for more money,” said Elisabeth Tissier-Desbordes, professor of marketing at the École supérieure de commerce (ESC) business school in Paris and an expert on the subject. “For example, glue used for shoes can be sold at a higher price than standard glue, because it meets a specific need.” The same principle applies for pink products targeting women: female consumers believe the products were designed specifically for them and are willing to pay a higher price, even if women could find practically the same products in the men’s aisle, but in a different colour.

“If women want to pay more for pink products, that’s their own fault. Instead of complaining, they simply need to buy products made for men.” This retort comes up every time the pink tax is discussed. But it’s not quite as simple as that, according to Tissier-Desbordes: “When we purchase products, we place a certain amount of trust in the merchant. We can’t spend all our time comparing every product, otherwise we would go crazy. Women see a pink razor, think it’s made for them and purchase it, without realising that they paid too much for it. Marketing is largely based on consumer spontaneity and ignorance.”

Pink has been associated with women and blue with men as a result of decades of gender marketing. This is similar to the idea that women need a different shampoo for each hair type and colour, as well as conditioners and hair lotions. These inventions, which are also available for men, were hammered home so much that they have since been internalised. It’s a vicious circle. “The more we differentiate based on gender, the more demand there is for gendered products and demand creates supply,” said Tissier-Desbordes.


“Look at toy catalogues; I’ve never seen so much gender marketing. It’s more effective than ever”

Elisabeth Tissier-Desbordes, professor of marketing at the École supérieure de commerce in Paris


Bic, with its pens for women and pink razors, is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to gender marketing. But all cosmetics brands, including Nivea, Korres and Vichy, divide up their products “for men” and “for women”, which is then continued by distributors such as the Swiss online pharmacy Zur Rose. Some manufacturers such as Axe, owned by Unilever, pay close attention to setting the same price for men’s and women’s deodorant when they are comparable, but products often aren’t exactly identical, so they can be sold at different prices.

Other companies, such as clothing giants H&M and American Apparel, try to bridge the gender gap with unisex collections (while simultaneously pushing incredibly gendered marketing campaigns) but these initiatives are feeble and isolated. For Elisabeth Tissier- Desbordes, the situation isn’t going to change anytime soon: “Just look at toy catalogues; I’ve never seen so much gender marketing. It’s more effective than ever.” Indeed, Hasbro was able to pull market share away from Mattel and its famous Barbie by focusing on toys for girls. The former publicist warned: “If we don’t become aware of the dangers of gender marketing, nothing will change.”