TORONTO — Signs advertising a summer sale draw a crowd of shoppers to a downtown Toronto mall. But being caught in the crush doesn't faze Leah Barnes. She loves a good deal. What bothers her is that the prices are unfair.
Prices sometimes discriminate against women, she says. "It happens all the time [when] I'm buying clothes, tailoring pants ... and getting haircuts, especially where I pay $10 to $15 [Canadian] more for a basic cut," she says.
But a proposed bill in the province of Ontario would prohibit what women including Barnes are calling the "gender tax" - charging one gender more for similar products or services.
Supporters of the measure, which could pass as early as next month, say it will protect women from discriminatory pricing. But critics say enforcement of such a law would be difficult. Some even argue that the price disparity for men and women for a number of goods and services is justified.
"A dollar in the hands of a man should be worth the same as a dollar in the hands of a woman," says Lorenzo Berardinetti, the Toronto Liberal who introduced the bill into the provincial parliament after his wife noticed she was always charged more than men for haircuts, deodorant, suits, and dry cleaning. "We have had this discrimination going on for so long.... We want to make it fair for all," he says.
Under his proposal, consumers could file complaints in court or the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Businesses could be fined up to $5,000 for violations. The measure is based on the 1995 Gender-Tax Repeal Act in California, the first state to make it unlawful to discriminate based on gender in the pricing of services. Similar legislation has also been passed in Florida's Miami-Dade County, New York City, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.
"It's sadly a practice that has been permitted to exist in the industries, and the practice is morally wrong," says former California Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson, who introduced amendments in 2001 to the state's gender pricing law requiring businesses such as tailors, hair salons, and dry cleaners to conspicuously post their prices.
Before the California law passed, a 1994 study found that gender-based pricing discrimination cost each woman in the state $1,351 a year, or almost $15 billion annually for all women.
Gender-based pricing is still widespread in Canada, with women paying 30 to 50 percent more for services and products, says Joanne Thomas Yaccato, president of a consulting firm in Toronto that specializes in research on women consumers.
At the Wave Zone Salon & Spa in Toronto, for example, women pay $10 to $15 more for a haircut, on average, than men. But the practice is not discriminatory, insists store owner Tammy Carr. "Generally, women's haircuts usually take more time [and] they're more complicated, so we charge slightly more," she explains.
Those sentiments are echoed by Randy Bridge, president of the Ontario Fabricare Association. The majority of Ontario dry cleaners he represents do not charge men and women different rates for the same services, he says, especially if their garments are the same size and material.
Women's clothes, however, are generally smaller and cut differently than men's, resulting in higher prices for the additional time and effort required to dry-clean them, say dry-cleaning industry officials.
"For instance, clothes that can't fit on our automated machinery for pressing ... will have to be hand pressed [to avoid damaging them]," says Sandra Giarde, executive director of the California Cleaners Association in Sacramento. "You're talking two or three times the amount of time to finish that."
Most dry cleaners can't afford to replace old machinery geared toward men's garments with modern unisex machines that could handle smaller-size women's clothing, says Bobby Smerling, former president of Greater Los Angeles Dry Cleaners Association, in Santa Monica, Calif. "To change out the machinery, you're looking [at] about $10,000 for each [piece of] equipment, and an average dry cleaner has about three presses," he says.
Gender-based pricing is essentially a marketing tactic rather than sexism, says Bart Weitz, executive director of the University of Florida's Miller Center for Retailing Education and Research in Gainesville. "To be a profitable business, you'd want to charge people what they are willing to pay for something," Professor Weitz says. "Women might be willing to pay more [and] their preferences are different [from men's]."
Weitz is also concerned such a law could open the floodgates to costly lawsuits. "I think this [outlawing gender-based pricing] just increases the cost of doing business and eventually the prices charged consumers," he says.
But Jackson, the former California Assemblywoman, says the issue of discriminatory pricing is not overblown. She admits, however, that a decade after the law took effect, California is still having problems enforcing it. The state's consumer affairs department is understaffed and many businesses don't want to comply with the law, she says.
"Things aren't difficult to enforce if people know what their rights are," Jackson says. "People buy with their feet. If they don't like the way they're being treated, they go elsewhere. But they need to know that it's unlawful to do the kinds of things that are being done by these different companies."
Price discrimination occurs when identical goods or services are sold at different prices to different customers. For example, airlines charge different prices for seats on the same flight.
The US Federal Trade Commission says that, in general, this is lawful if it reflects higher costs in dealing with different buyers, or to boost competition. Here are the three kinds of price discrimination:
First degree: Price varies by customer when prices are negotiable, as in car sales, sports tickets, or real estate.
Second degree: Price varies by the number of units sold. In other words, if you buy a lot of something, the cost per unit generally goes down.
Third degree: Price varies by customer group. This can include charging higher rates to young male drivers for auto insurance or making women pay higher prices to dry clean certain garments that require special care. Some communities have banned instances of gender-based price discrimination. For example: discounts for women entering nightclubs.
Source: DigitalEconomist.com, FTC.gov.