The pink tax is a grey area

A few weeks ago I found myself in Dis-Chem with a packet of pink disposable razors in my hand — and my hackles up.

They were the Gillette Blue II brand and they cost R37.95. A few steps down the aisle was the seemingly identical equivalent aimed at men. They were R6 cheaper. The only obvious difference was that one was blue and the other pink.

I had heard about the supposed “pink tax” before — the idea that women are charged more for similar, if not identical, products or services solely because they are aimed at women. But this was the first time I had found an apparent example of it.

So I spent an afternoon hunting through various retailers’ aisles ready to find egregious examples of higher prices aimed at women. But what I found could hardly be classed as incontrovertible proof.

There were some outlying examples, such as the fact that Schick Quattro razor blade cartridges for women were R5 more expensive than those for men. And, if you are a mature man, 50ml of Nivea Men’s Active Age moisturiser, which “reduces wrinkles and firms skin”, will cost you R11 less than 50ml of Nivea’s Q10 Anti-Wrinkle Day Cream for women. Lucky you.

Clothing also revealed some oddities. A pair of boys’ pyjamas at Woolworths, for example, was R50 cheaper than a girls’ pair. Although the designs were different, both were embellished — the girls’ with a fairy, the boys’ with a blue dinosaur — but they were very similar, with cotton bottoms and a long-sleeved top.

Also a pair of woolies RE brand blue skinny jeans will cost you R599 if you are a woman and R399 if you are a man. 

But my cursory comparisons also found many other examples where prices were the same or, if they were different, it was because the products were. For example, a women’s cleansing product contained a greater volume.

My results certainly did not reflect the furious headlines of other media outlets this week, suggesting that the pink tax is alive and well in South Africa.

Does this mean it does not exist? And how much of a factor is it in the face of other questions about the role of women in the economy?

Research about gender pricing in other parts of the world has raised angry debates and revealed uncomfortable numbers.

In 2015, the New York department for consumer affairs conducted a study of gender pricing in the city. It analysed goods in five industries, 24 shops, 91 brands, 35 product categories and 794 products. It found in all five industries women paid 7% more for toys and accessories, 4% more for children’s clothing, 8% more for adult clothing, 13% more for personal care products and 8% more for senior or home healthcare products.

The department found that women’s products cost more in 42% of samples, and men’s products cost more in 18% of samples.

“Over the course of a woman’s life, the financial impact of these gender-based pricing disparities is significant,” the study said.

Manufacturers and retailers may argue that there are good reasons for these price differences, for example, the fact that different constituents go into women’s products, justifying a higher price, but the study pointed out: “Though there may be legitimate drivers behind some portion of the price discrepancies unearthed in this study, these higher prices are mostly unavoidable for women.”

Consumers have no control over the textiles or ingredients used in the products marketed to them, the report said, and so “choices made by manufacturers and retailers result in a greater financial burden for female consumers than for male consumers”.

The research follows other work done in the United States in the mid-1990s that showed gender and race bias in negotiations for new car purchases. White men were quoted significantly lower prices than black or women buyers.

Research out this year by academics from the Complutense University of Madrid, which analysed 1 504 products, revealed a more nuanced picture.

It distinguished between identical or “quasi-identical” products targeted at women and men in a differentiated manner, similar products with nonfunctional differences, similar products with functional differences aimed specifically at women and men, and products aimed exclusively at each gender.

The research suggested that there was no proof of a pink tax on identical products but there was a 16% price difference in similar products, particularly those with functional differences aimed at women.

The researchers also highlighted the significantly larger array of options marketed at women, and questioned the role this plays in driving consumption habits and perpetuating social ideals of beauty.

Research on a pink tax in South Africa is hard to come by but women here face many other uncomfortable realities when it comes to their participation in the economy.

Data in the Statistics South Africa labour dynamics survey of 2016 suggested that the gender pay gap is an estimated 22%, based on median monthly earnings.

And last week consultancy firm PwC released its annual director’s remuneration report on JSE-listed companies. It suggested that the pay gap persists even when women reach the dizzy heights of the boardroom.

The report notes that the women in executive roles in resources firms earn 5% less than their male counterparts, those in financial and services firms earn 7% less, and those in industrials earn 10% less.

“There are various prejudices in the workplace environment that need to be targeted in order to bridge the gender pay gap,” the report states. “These include companies’ reluctance to hire female employees because of perceptions regarding maternity leave, that they will leave their careers for childcare or work part time.”

These issues also come against the background of other gender-driven debates, such as the call on the independent panel on value-added tax zero rating to add sanitary items to the list of goods that are VAT-exempt.

According to a submission to the panel by the University of Stellenbosch’s law clinic, feminine hygiene products are a basic and essential need but many underprivileged women cannot afford them. This infringes on their constitutional rights, such as the right to bodily and psychological integrity and to human dignity, it is argued in the submission.

But the real financial effect this would have for women has been questioned, with the treasury noting in the past that zero-rating these goods is unlikely to have the desired effect, because it is more likely to benefit the rich and the middle classes.

Gender bias in the tax system more broadly has been the subject of local studies in the past as part of a global debate on how tax systems treat men and women differently. Recent tax cuts announced in Australia, for example, will reportedly benefit men far more than women. The Guardian reported that the $143-billion in tax cuts is likely to benefit men at a ratio of almost two to one, reflecting the gender pay gap in Australia, and the different working patterns of men and women.

South Africa has corrected some of the more explicit problems in our tax system, such as higher tax rates for single people and married women than for men, according to the International Monetary Fund.

But, when it comes to proving that we are paying more for our deodorant and are somehow being prejudiced by an invisible and extra consumption tax, the jury is still out.

Monja Posthumus-Meyjes, an attorney in the University of Stellenbosch’s law clinic, said the organisation had also noted the claims about the prevalence of the pink tax but the clinic’s preliminary research on the issue could not find any conclusive evidence of it.

“We haven’t found anything concrete,” she said, adding that the prices appear to be very subjective depending on what is offered to men and to women.

Although the clinic has not abandoned the idea of investigating a pink tax, it will need substantive evidence that it exists before it does.

As for me, I can’t say for sure that I’m paying a premium on my shampoo, soap or T-shirts but, that day in Dis-Chem, I walked out with the blue razor blades.

We’re not to blame, the shops say

The co-founder of Dis-Chem, Lynette Saltzman, said the group does not discriminate against women on pricing in any way.

In the examples provided by the Mail & Guardian, such as the difference in prices of men’s and women’s Nivea products, she said it comes down to the fact that there are different product variants in the ranges. “Once there are different [active ingredients] in the product, then the prices are different,” Saltzman explained.

In the case of the razor blades, she said the retail price is determined by the manufacturer’s cost price and Dis-Chem in fact makes less profit on the women’s blades.

“If there are discrepancies from the manufacturers, we need to find out why,” she said, although she added that the blades are slightly different; those aimed at women are tailored for more sensitive skin.

Questions sent to the Gillette manufacturer, Procter & Gamble, went unanswered.

In the case of Woolworths pyjamas, the company said the pricing difference is because the girls’ range is for children aged two to nine while the boys’ range is shorter and is for children from the age of six months to two years.

The company did not explain the difference in the price of jeans. — Lynley Donnelly

Lynley Donnelly
Lynley Donnelly
Lynley is a senior business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. But she has covered everything from social justice to general news to parliament - with the occasional segue into fashion and arts. She keeps coming to work because she loves stories, especially the kind that help people make sense of their world.

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