Tax and Fiscal Policy

The ‘gender tax’ story doesn’t show what feminists think it shows

The Times has a front-page lead today investigating differential pricing for similar functioning products branded towards men and women (sadly, another direct import from US debates). Some examples:

  • ‘At Argos, identical children’s scooters are £5 more expensive in pink than in blue…’

  • ‘Levi’s 501 jeans for women are on average 46 per cent more expensive than the men’s version, even if they have the same waist and leg length…’

  • ‘Standard razors for women tended to cost 49 per cent more than the equivalent for men. Tesco sells five own-brand “female twin-blade disposable razors” for £1. For the same price men get ten of an almost identical product, except that the razors are blue.’

  • ‘Amazon sells a Playmobil pirates ship for £12.59. The equivalent “fairy queen” ship costs £14.99.’

Predictably, the Fawcett Society has described this as a ‘sexist surcharge’ – implying overt, and almost coercive discrimination. Maria Miller perhaps gets closer to the real source of the outrage when she says: ‘At a time when we should be moving towards a more de-gendered society, retailers are out of step with public opinion.’

Here’s three things to bear in mind with this story:

  1. The products aren’t ‘the same’. Yes, razors have the same functional use whether they are for men and women, but part of a product is its branding and design. Don’t believe me? Look at different brands of baked beans. On clothes, past explanations for this sort of differential pricing have been that men’s clothes tend to be more standardised, whereas women’s “are far more varied — sleeveless, rayon, cap-sleeved, buttoned, silk, pullover — and can’t all be handled the same”.

  2. This is voluntary exchange, suggesting that women are less price responsive than men. Women are not forced to buy these products. They freely choose to do so. That many do suggests that, on average, they are more price inelastic than men – i.e. less responsive to changes in prices. This throws up an interesting sociological question. Maria Miller would have us believe that public opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of a de-gendered society. Many people may indeed state this. But this is clear evidence that when they vote with their wallets, they overwhelmingly value the products tailored to their gender, regardless of their higher price. Now, many feminists would put this down to social norms and conditioning, but it could not be clearer that it is Maria Miller who is out of touch with public opinion expressed through people’s revealed preferences right now.

  3. A product is worth what people are willing to pay for it in exchange, not some function of the cost to make it. This debate risks entrenching the idea that product prices should be linked solely to costs of production – a variant of the old ‘labour theory of value’. In fact, value is subjective to the individual contemplating the objective, not the functions or characteristics of the product itself. That is why there are so many gains from trade – exchange takes place each participant values what the other person has more than they value what they are offering. The key question then, I guess, is why do many women value these gender targeted products so highly? I’m not best placed to answer that, but some have suggested that there is a higher payoff to women of conforming to trends or ‘belonging to you gender’.

Once again, real people confound the academics and the politicians. Women seem to respond to brands and so-called ‘gendered products’. They decide to buy them, even if their self-appointed superiors think they should not. It is not the market that is somehow failing but politicians who do not understand how real people behave.

Head of Public Policy and Director, Paragon Initiative

Ryan Bourne is Head of Public Policy at the IEA and Director of The Paragon Initiative. Ryan was educated at Magdalene College, Cambridge where he achieved a double-first in Economics at undergraduate level and later an MPhil qualification. Prior to joining the IEA, Ryan worked for a year at the economic consultancy firm Frontier Economics on competition and public policy issues. After leaving Frontier in 2010, Ryan joined the Centre for Policy Studies think tank in Westminster, first as an Economics Researcher and subsequently as Head of Economic Research. There, he was responsible for writing, editing and commissioning economic reports across a broad range of areas, as well as organisation of economic-themed events and roundtables. Ryan appears regularly in the national media, including writing for The Times, the Daily Telegraph, ConservativeHome and Spectator Coffee House, and appearing on broadcast, including BBC News, Newsnight, Sky News, Jeff Randall Live, Reuters and LBC radio. He is currently a weekly columnist for CityAM.

3 thoughts on “The ‘gender tax’ story doesn’t show what feminists think it shows”

  1. Posted 19/01/2016 at 14:05 | Permalink

    I could equally respond by saying that men suffer because of the relative lack of variety in the clothing and consumer products available to them. Go into any department store and you will usually find a ground floor packed full of women’s fragrances, jewelry and accessories with perhaps 10% given over to men. Go upstairs and the story is the same – about 90% women’s clothing to 10% men.

    Yes, there is gendered pricing but there’s also gendered choice. It’s the market doing what it does best – responding to customer demand.

    Its women who don’t want the luxury of choice who lose out. But so do men who are less bothered about price but more choosy about what to buy.

  2. Posted 19/01/2016 at 20:49 | Permalink

    Who are you with your patriarchal logic and reasoning?

  3. Posted 20/01/2016 at 02:30 | Permalink

    The women could very easily just by the men’s razors and use those instead. That’s what the guys would do if the situation were reversed and eventually the price would go down.

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