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Preconceived or Prevailing? Investigating the Pink Tax

Updated July 13, 2023
Updated July 13, 2023
No Revisions via Unsplash

The "pink tax"—the discriminatory markup of products or services marketed to women—has been widely discussed. Listen Money Matters reports that women pay more than men for personal care products 42% of the time, costing them an average of $1,300 more annually than their male counterparts. Although there are currently no federal laws prohibiting gender-based pricing, legislation has been passed in New York and California making the pink tax illegal. But while several studies claim that the pink tax categorically exists, research conducted by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University finds no significant price difference exists between comparable products aimed at women and men.

The study's results came from the analysis of price information of eight types of personal care products marketed to both genders: bar soap, body wash, deodorant, hair dye, razor blades, razors, shampoo, and shaving cream. The data analyzed was provided by Nielsen and investigated over three years worth of data from 40,000 Walgreens stores across the US. The researchers chose Walgreens to ensure an accurate comparison from one chain, identifying how these products were categorized on the retailer's website, then using an ingredient database to compare how similar the gendered products were.

The outcome of the research states that pink tax claims are so distinguished because previous studies have not compared products that are exactly the same, but instead, those that serve the same purpose, which often contain differentiating ingredients, leading to an impact on pricing. "Comparable" is the key word, Anna Tuchman, Professor of Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, explains. "We find that when firms sell products targeted to men and women, they're rarely identical products that are sold in different colored packaging. The prices charged for products targeted to men and women differ, but it seems to be driven by the fact that the products themselves are different."

Essentially, while it is correct that women's products, including deodorants, razors, and shaving gel, can cost more than ones aimed at men (which several pink tax studies have shown), the reasoning behind this is because of the ingredients inside. The study identified that several women's products included added extras such as moisturizers, increasing the cost of the product's curation and retail price.

Further examples can be found with just one search on other retailers' websites. At Walmart, women's Bic EasyRinse Anti-Clogging Razors, which contain one handle and four refillable blades, retail at $7.27. The men's version of this product contains all the same components, the only difference being they are a darker shade of blue and retail at the same price of $7.27. Another example is Degree Ultra Clear Dry Spray Antiperspirant Deodorant for Women, which retails at $6.12, compared to Degree Ultra Clear Dry Spray Antiperspirant Deodorant for Men, which also retails at $6.12.

"Among the relatively small number of products that were truly comparable, we don't find big price differences," Tuchman continues. "In some categories, there were slight price differences between men's and women's products, but not always to the disadvantage of women. Ultimately, the small differences wash out across categories."

"In some categories, there were slight price differences between men's and women's products, but not always to the disadvantage of women. Ultimately, the small differences wash out across categories."
By Anna Tuchman, Professor of Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University

The study also found that the average US household would only save less than 1% if they switched to comparable products targeted at different genders. It was identified that this gap would become significantly larger, closer to 10%, if households were willing to switch to products with different formulations, such as women purchasing gender-neutral products or choosing products that do not contain added moisturizers and other more expensive ingredients. Tuchman believes that "there's not a lot of money being left on the table if people truly do prefer the product formulations that they're choosing."

Tuchman and her fellow researchers Sarah Moshary of Berkeley Marketing Group and Natasha Bhatia Vajavelu of Cornerstone Research went into the study expecting to find results similar to other studies surrounding the pink tax. "We thought we were going to find strong evidence of pink tax," she adds. "But once our results started coming back, it led us to a different conclusion." This conclusion was that there is almost no pink tax, but instead, just a bigger pink basket.

For women, the personal hygiene shop will most likely always cost more as more products are needed. The study attributes this  to the added cost of menstruation products, which most cisgender men will not have to purchase, as well as the perceived marketing pressure for women to attain higher beauty standards. While the topic of women's beauty expectations was touched on, including the question, "Why do so many women's products contain added moisturizer—because women want it or because marketers have created the expectation?", Tuchman explains that she currently doesn't have those answers; however, the next research paper is set to explore this subject as its main focus.

"Within the basket, individual items may have the same price, but it's a bigger basket. While some may see that as unfair, it's a problem that legislation can't, on its own, easily solve."

While the cost of menstruation products and the tax added to them is often a separate issue when it comes to the discussion of the pink tax, it is worth noting that these products are what is most likely to increase the basket price for women. On top of the additional cost of menstrual products, these SKUs often face an entirely different debate—whether or not they should be void of tax. In 21 states in the US, tax on mensuration products, often referred to as the tampon tax, still exists. In the UK, the tampon tax was abolished in 2021, with many Americans hoping the US will soon follow suit. To try and tackle this issue, period-care brand August covers the price of the tampon tax for any purchases made through their website and Amazon, as well as having a partnership with cashback app Aisle, that reimburses customers for any taxes paid on in-store purchases of their products.

Ultimately, the new research provides evidence that the pink tax is not as prominent as many may think, but this does not mean that women aren't subject to paying more overall for their personal care items. This leaves an opportunity for businesses to connect with their consumers, addressing their frustrations around higher prices. For those who truly care, following the footsteps of brands like August is a great place to start, as well as committing to making their marketing less encouraging of stereotypical beauty standards. For consumers wishing to find a quick fix to the higher prices of women's products, several genderless SKUs are available as gender-neutral brands continue to grow within the beauty market. "After all, nothing prevents women from buying the cheaper, less-moisturizing blue deodorants today—yet many aren't," Tuchman concludes.


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