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small change

A 2015 U.S. survey of 800 products that offered male and female versions found that those marketed specifically to women and girls cost 7 per cent more than those aimed at men and boys.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Small Change is series of stories that show how consumers can save money by making minor or incremental changes to their lifestyle.

A few years ago, when Lia Grimanis was getting glammed up for a magazine photo shoot, her male makeup artist gave her sage advice: buy men's facial exfoliant.

Not only would it do a better job scrubbing away flaky skin, but it would likely be cheaper because she'd need just a dab compared to the wimpy women's equivalents.

The chief executive officer of Up With Women, a Toronto-based homeless charity, complied. Ms. Grimanis still has the grey, utilitarian-looking bottle and now prefers to buy men's products when she can, although she admits there are some tradeoffs.

"Of course I haven't found any that doesn't make me smell like the Aqua Velva man, but I'm a practical gal," she says. "I'll deal with the smell if it gets the job done."

An undesirable fragrance is perhaps a small price to pay for the ability to pay a smaller price. Here's the reality: Studies have shown that women often pay more for goods and services targeted at them in comparison to similar ones meant for men. Think a $45 women's short haircut versus $25 for men. Or shelling out $23 to launder a blouse versus $8.95 for a guy's shirt. And don't forget pink razors, girly shampoo and even shoe insoles. In many cases, women pay more.

Now there is new data to confirm it. Late in 2015, New York's Department of Consumer Affairs looked at 800 products that offered male and female versions. The products were practically the same, including quality, except for the packaging.

The organization found that those marketed specifically to women and girls cost 7 per cent more than those aimed at men and boys. The largest disparity was found in hair care: shampoo, conditioner and styling products lightened a woman's wallet by a whopping 48 per cent.

CBC's Marketplace, a consumer rights watchdog television show, has also examined gender gouging, revealing that while some U.S. states prohibit so-called gender pricing, no such law exists in Canada.

Darren Dahl, a marketing professor with the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, says he isn't surprised that marketers have found a way to ratchet up the price for women if they can. The secret weapon? Branding. For instance, some women's products are packaged in more expensive-looking containers – glass bottles versus a men's squeeze tube. And a label is designed to create emotion in buyers and make them feel it somehow represents them.

"We know that brands are symbols and people will pay a lot for them," he says.

Don't kid yourself that companies are trying to give men a leg up in the, say, skincare aisle, though. In a 2015 New York Times article, Tony Sosnick, founder of Anthony (tagline: Developed for men. Borrowed by women) told a reporter, "If we could charge $60 for our Glycolic Facial Cleanser, we would do it, but we can't. We charge half that because the market isn't at a point yet where men spend what women spend on products."

So if men aren't willing to fork over 60 bucks for face cream, why are women?

Gentry Ford, vice-president of marketing for Slate Cosmetics NYC and an account executive for ReiCura, an ad agency in Toronto, says the difference boils down to necessity versus desire.

"Men are very much about need," she says. "So when it comes to the packaging of beauty products, you'll notice that men's products are about practical appeal. What exactly is this product going to achieve for you?"

Women, however, expect a product to give them an experience and will pay extra for it.

"Women want to feel pampered, luxurious, important and feel the one-on-one connection," she maintains.

Meanwhile, Ms. Grimanis refuses to believe women pay more because they are clueless that gender pricing happens, as a trip to a co-ed hair salon makes so painfully obvious. Nor does she think that women simply adore their pink razors.

"I'd hate to say it's programming because that's so bloody conspiracy theory, but really it is," she says. "We've been programmed since we were babies that nothing about us is good enough. Now we have all this pressure to show up, look good and stay on top of anything aesthetic."

And because such great value is placed on looks, some women may feel that the products created to achieve smooth, wrinkle-free skin and flowing locks should reflect that value. At least when it comes to price point.

But more female consumers are starting to fight back, not just in Canada, but around the world. Search #gendertax or #pinktax on Twitter, and you'll find frustration-fueled posts from Ireland, Spain and beyond. Women are posting damning photos they've snapped at their local malls.

These tweets may point to the beginning of a new era of genderless products. And while the number of gender-blending clothing stores and unisex perfumes are still low, Mr. Dahl says that women can make informed decisions because of all the product information online, including price-per-ounce and ingredient lists.

"Today, more than ever, consumers can find out if an organization is playing with them," he explains. "Years ago, before we had consumer empowerment, people just had to take what they were sold."

Shop in the men's aisle

Looking to pay your brother's prices? A small switch in your buying habits could reap big rewards. Here are some products likely to be marked up for women:

– Shampoo.

– Conditioner.

– Hair styling gel.

– Skincare lotion.

– Razors.

– Jeans. (In other words, skip paying more for "boyfriend" style jeans and just buy your boyfriend's jeans.)