As if being a woman wasn't difficult enough—what with all the not having control over important decisions about our own bodies, making less money than our male colleagues, and, yes, let's play the childbirth card—we are also routinely hit with financial penalties just for having the balls to be born with a vagina. That's right, women pay more for everything from razors to houses to health care for no reason other than that we are women. It's like our own personal vagina tax, and it sucks.
In fact, it's enraging. You might think such gendered pricing practices would be illegal and we wouldn't even have to worry about them, but alas they are not. Of course, there are federal civil rights laws which project against discrimination in employment and housing on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation, but the same cannot be said for the sales of goods and services. Some states and cities have their own statutes, but they often don't make much of a dent in these kinds of widespread problems.
In fact, this problem is so pervasive that often we don't even notice it's happening—we just accept the cost of items as a given, sort of like the air around us. But there are lots of little ways we're charged more than men. Marie Claire has a detailed run-down of how this plays out, and they point specifically to dry cleaners, who often charge women three times as much to clean shirts which are virtually identical to mens' dress shirts. They justify this by saying that these "blouses" require extra labor to press. Hmm, seeing as I wear a larger shirt size than some of my male friends, yet their shirts fit on the pressing machine, this hardly seems possible.
Then there are things like haircuts and women's toiletries, which are typically priced higher than their men's counterparts, despite the fact that, even though they are all wrapped up in them purty pale pink packages, they are virtually the same products. (Maybe pink ink is just astronomically expensive?) Obviously retailers don't like to admit to it, since if they did, we'd come running at them, nails filed to a point and extra-gentle razors in hand, demanding a refund, but it is happening.
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A study done at the University of Central Florida found that on average, women's deodorant costs 30 cents more per ounce than men's, even when the only difference between the products was the smell. The study's coauthor, Megan Duesterhaus 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." Well, they are from Mars, and we're from Venus, which probably has an atmosphere that affects our sweat differently and necessitates special deodorant technology to neutralize our female brand of stank.
We could consider ourselves "lucky" if these price gaps stopped at relatively trivial expenditures like dry cleaning and hair products, but unfortunately they extend into far more substantial purchases like cars, homes, and even health insurance. Blergh. In the case of buying cars, it's long been known that women often get the shaft, and it doesn't seem to have improved one bit. On average, women now pay $200 more for a car than a white man would, and black women pay a whopping $400 more.
When it comes to home loans, the Consumer Federation of America found in 2006 that women were 32 percent more likely to end up with high-interest subprime loans, even if when they had better credit ratings than the men. This may not be a case of discrimination, but rather the result of the way women tend to shop for things. Economists theorize that we rely on word-of-mouth rather than just taking the lowest rate from whomever is offering it. We aren't as likely to negotiate either, which puts us at a disadvantage when buying cars, homes, or other big items like appliances. As Yale Law School professor Ian Ayres explains, "The idea of just giving a discount to those who ask for one puts women at a strong disadvantage since they are less inclined to ask." (Here is some help for this very problem, should you need it.)
Perhaps the most disturbing part of this whole situation is that women pay so much more in health care premiums because of a practice called gender rating—basically charging more because they can claim that a person's gender affects how much it will cost to cover them. The National Women's Law Center has just issued a new report that found more than 90 percent of the best-selling health plans charge women more than they do men. This practice has already been made illegal in 14 states, but the rest the country is still shit out of luck.
Just how bad is the gap? Pretty bad. According to eHealthInsurance.com, in Chicago a 30-year-old woman pays 31 percent more than a man of her same age pays. In Louisville, Kentucky, a 40-year-old nonsmoking woman pays 53 percent more than a nonsmoking man of the same age. The nonsmoking woman even pays 14 percent more than the premium a male smoker pays.
Why, pray tell, would insurers charge women so much more than men? It's mostly because, "[Women] are more likely to visit doctors, to get regular checkups, to take prescription drugs and to have certain chronic illnesses." Oh good, because it totally makes sense to charge people more for keeping themselves healthy, thereby saving you money in the long run. Also, the fact that the gender gaps vary so widely between insurers indicates there is no "fixed cost" associated with covering the fairer sex, so their whole premise is pretty much bullshit. But to be fair, we are awfully needy in the drugs department. After all, we keep demanding those pricey whore pills, month after month.
The gender gap mainly applies to people purchasing insurance individually, because civil rights law prohibits employers from charging higher premiums for the same benefits to female employees. Though for group plans, if they have more women than men, an employer can choose to raise everyone's premiums to cover the higher cost of women's premiums. (That must really make our male colleagues love us.) But, wait, there's more where that came from: The premium gap isn't the only penalty against women who are buying their own insurance—they often also have to pay for maternity coverage separately, which can add to their costs significantly. For instance, in Springfield, Illinois, a 30-year-old woman must pay $278 for her monthly plan, plus $270 a month for maternity coverage. It sure is nice that having a baby isn't considered a normal part of human bodily function.
Fortunately, the evil socialist plot known as Obama's health care reform law addresses this and will eliminate gender rating in 2014. It will also require insurance plans to cover maternity care as one of the "essential health benefits." That is, if the whole thing doesn't get struck down by the Supreme Court… Fingers crossed!
So, when all is said and done and you add this all up, what exactly is the penalty we pay for being card-carrying vagina owners? Well, Marie Claire reports that California (where gender pricing has been banned since 1996) found that ladies paid about $1,351 a year in extra costs and fees. If you take that figure and run it across the entire country, it results in a total burden on women of about 151 billion dollars. That, in case you're one of them there ladies that isn't so good with numbers, is a lot of money. As it happens, it's more than what the federal government spent on education in 2011. Gee, it sure would be nice to have some of that back in our bank account, but hahaha. Yeah, right.
Sadly, given that this is such a far-reaching problem, and there's no one organization causing it, fighting this kind of gendered pricing is insanely difficult. But there are some ways we can fight for the right to pay what guys pay. (God, it's so crazy that that sentence even needs to be typed.) First of all, start paying attention to where gender pricing is happening and try to avoid it. Second, it is certainly in our interest to continue supporting Obama's health care bill, however imperfect it might be, against the constant onslaught of Republican attacks, and to that end you might want to write to your state and local representatives about all of these issues. Other than that, your only other option is to simply complain on a company-by-company basis and stop buying things from places that insist on overcharging you. It's the power of the purse, people—the beautifully crafted, high fashion purse you'll finally be able to afford when you no longer have to pay the Vagina Tax.
Why Women Pay More [Marie Claire]
Gender Gap Persists in Cost of Health Insurance [New York Times]
Image via wavebreakmedia ltd/Shutterstock.