A Push for Fair Prices For the Fair Sex

GENDER EQUITY LAWS

WASHINGTON State Sen. Pat Thibaudeau has to endure the sarcasm of her male colleagues who say they might be forced to don pearls instead neckties on the floor of the senate.

But Senator Thibaudeau is unbowed. While not exactly storming The Citadel, she is fighting a gender battle that could, Thibaudeau says, save the average American woman thousands of dollars over a lifetime.

The Washington senator is pushing what is known as ''gender-based pricing equity.'' And slowly, the momentum may be building - in a handful of state legislatures and the courts - for similar measures that make it unlawful for women to be charged more than men are for similar goods and services.

A survey conducted by Thibaudeau's staff found that in Seattle 36 percent of haircutters charged women an average of $5.58 more for a basic short cut and that 86 percent of drycleaners charged an average $2.05 more to launder a woman's cotton shirt. Meanwhile, she says wage studies show that women earn less than men.

''Women are tired of paying more for exactly the same services,'' says Thibaudeau.

Indeed, similar survey results prompted California to pass the Gender Tax Repeal Act, which was signed into law by Gov. Pete Wilson late last year. It prohibits businesses from charging women more than men for haircuts, dry cleaning, car repairs, and other services.

A similar bill is pending in New York. And there are other signs that this issue is striking a chord with the public, including:

A class-action suit was filed in January by a New York woman against Victoria's Secret alleging ''pricing discrimination'' because catalogs sent to women offered lesser discounts than those sent to men.

A gender pricing equity newsletter was recently launched on the Internet by Frances Cerra Whittelsey, author of the book ''Women Pay More: And How to Put a Stop to It.''

The Massachusetts attorney general joined a suit filed by a group of female golfers claiming they were not allowed prime tee times at their local country club.

Nationwide, dry cleaners have been quick to defend their pricing practices by contending that women's shirts cost more to clean because they do not fit on standard presses and must be ironed by hand. Thibaudeau counters by suggesting that surely some men wear shirts that are too small to fit on standard presses.

In Washington State, Brad Pickett, a board member of the Northwest Dry Cleaners Association and owner of Modern Cleaners in Mt. Vernon, says he does not believe most cleaning establishments would be opposed to pricing equity as long as the shirt will fit on the standard press. While he acknowledges that some dry cleaners routinely charge more for women's shirts, he said, his business charges more for both men's and women's shirts that must be hand-pressed.

Pickett says his key concern is whether dry cleaners would be forced to pay for outside consultants to determine whether their pricing structures are equal.

But gender-pricing bills often face an uphill battle. Indeed, the Washington Senate recently rejected Senator Thibaudeau's proposal, instead calling for a state-funded study on gender-pricing discrimination.

A Florida bill, proposed last year by state Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, also died for lack of funding to administer a program for ensuring compliance. Representative Wasserman Schultz says the controversy is ''starting to be recognized as a real issue. When you add up how much discrimination in pricing costs a family, you're talking about a lot of money.'' Thibaudeau agrees, saying the issue is provoking a strong voter response: ''Women say to me, 'I am so tired of paying $2 more than my husband to have a cotton shirt cleaned.'''

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