ARMED with cotton shirts and disheveled hair, researchers with the California legislature recently set out to test a common complaint among women: that they often pay more for basic services, like laundering and hair cutting, than men.
The suspicions were confirmed. A survey of 25 hair salons found that women paid more 40 percent of the time, while dry cleaners typically charged $1.71 more to do a woman's shirt.
Such practices may no longer be so easy in the future. A bill before the California legislature would make it illegal to charge different prices to men and women for the same goods and services.
Championed by consumer groups and womens' organizations, it would be the first law of its kind in the country. The measure is opposed by business interests, however, which fear a laundry bin of lawsuits. ``It really can open up the whole issue to litigation,'' says Martha Alcott of the California Manufacturers Association.
Gender-based pricing has long been a concern among some groups. It has flared up as studies have surfaced showing inequities.
In 1989, for instance, law students at George Washington University visited 25 dry cleaners in the Washington D.C. area. They found what those in the California Assembly Office of Research recently did: Cleaners often charge more, up to 200 percent more, to launder a woman's shirt.
In a 1990 Chicago study, the American Bar Foundation found white women being asked to pay $142 more for the same new car as white men. Clothing alteration prices have long been a source of female pique, too.
``Many people just take it for granted because it is so pervasive,'' says Marcia Carroll, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Responsive Law in Washington D.C.
Authorities have tried to crack down on such practices. After a 1991 survey showed inequities among dry cleaners in the Boston area, the Massachusetts Attorney General's office sent out a warning letter to businesses. Many states - including California - have civil rights laws on the books that prohibit discrimination by gender.
Some still think too many women are being taken to the cleaners, though. Thus the bill by state Assemblywoman Jacqueline Speier (D) of Burlingame, Calif.
Called the Equal Pricing Act, it would give district attorneys authority to prosecute businesses that charge different amounts for the same services. It would also allow consumers to file price discrimination suits in small claims court.
Proponents say explicit laws are needed because those already on the books haven't discouraged gender-based pricing. They note that only one successful action has been brought under existing civil-rights codes in California.
``If a woman brings a ruffled blouse into a dry cleaner, should she be charged more? Absolutely,'' Ms. Speier says. ``But you can't make a case when you're talking about identical shirts.''
Critics such as Ms. Alcott believe the Speier bill is ``too vague'' and predict irreparable damage to businesses. She cites the case of a clock radio manufacturer who makes one model, in black, aimed at men and another, in blue or pink, marketed to women. The products may look alike but cost different amounts to manufacture because of paint or other materials. Do they have to carry the same price tag?
``Our concern is that manufacturers be able to price products according to the cost of making them,'' she says.
Others chafe at the idea of the government poking around in dry cleaning stacks. Cathy Young, a contributor to the free market-oriented Reason Magazine, argues there are plenty of cleaners and hair salons that don't charge different rates. People should seek them out. ``The way to address the problem, to the extent there is one, is for people to become more conscious consumers,'' she says.
Many salon owners justify different rates: They say it takes far more time to cut and style a woman's hair than a man's. Some dry cleaners, too, contend women's clothing requires more work, though George Geoula has no problem with equality under his irons.
``It doesn't matter if a shirt is a man's or a woman's,'' says the owner of Stansbury Cleaners in Sherman Oaks, Calif. ``If it fits on my press machine, it is $1.25. If it doesn't, and has to be ironed by hand, it is $2.50.''
Passage of the legislation is no certainty. Though an Assembly committee approved the measure this week, the biggest test will come in the state Senate. After that, it would have to go to Gov. Pete Wilson (R), whose consumer affairs department opposes the bill.