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Gender tax: From clothing to cosmetics, why are women paying more for products despite earning less?

Indian women pay higher amount than men do for similar products. Why then, is gender tax, sometimes inappropriately called 'pink tax', not a major issue?

July 28, 2019 / 03:25 PM IST
Representative Image

Representative Image


If one was to shop – from a store or online, there is a good chance that a woman will end up paying more for a product, than a man.  That extra, which sometimes can go up to 50 percent, is the price paid for being a woman.

This is not exclusive to India; in capitalist economies all over the world, women pay more for goods and services than men. This price differential is called 'pink tax', or more appropriately called 'gender tax'.

The issue begins with the nomenclature itself. The media, especially in the West, has long used the term pink tax, which itself falls into the stereotype of colour coding women and girls with the colour pink.

"I object to the phrase 'pink tax'. Pink for girls and blue for boys is just idiotic. Instead of continuing the trivialization, we can use a different phrase for it," says Ritu Dewan, Vice-President at Indian Society of Labour Economics, and former President at Indian Association for Women's Studies.  She is known for her work on gender economics.

A widespread belief is that gender tax does not apply in India. On the surface, it would be difficult to find a gender tax on products and services. However, on digging deeper, one will find evidence that women pay more for a product than men. For instance, if you look for a basic round-neck cotton T-shirt (of a leading Indian brand) online, a piece costs Rs.399 for men; whereas the women's version is priced at Rs.419 – a straight 5 percent increase. Similarly, V-neck t-shirts are also priced differently, for men at Rs 305 and for women at Rs 359.

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These are not garments which are fancier or more detailed for women.

Harish Bijoor, Brand Guru and Founder of Harish Bijoor Consults Inc. said, “It is a question of what goes into the product. It's not really a pink tax or a pink discount. It is really about the quality of the garment, round neck or type of cotton and all that. You can’t measure it yard to yard.”

Producers and marketers might believe that women are willing to spend more when it comes to their looks and grooming. Then, pricing products higher becomes part of the marketing strategy and companies are happy to rake in a bit more from women. So, razors for women cost more than the razors for men. For instance, a 3- blade razor for men is priced at Rs 230 and a similar razor for women is priced at Rs 499.

A counter-argument to this pricing discrepancy could be economies of scale. Since more men buy more razors, the increased demand helps even out the price and makes it lower.

Similarly, there are deodorants galore for which women end up paying a gender tax.

Men deo by brand X: 150 ml for Rs 225 Women deo by brand X: 120 ml for Rs 250 Men deo by brand X: 150 ml for Rs 225
Women deo by brand X: 120 ml for Rs 250

Leading brands of deodorants cost an average of Rs 250 for a 100 ml can for men; women's deodorants, on the other hand, cost Rs.185 for a 50 ml bottle. This is a whopping 48 percent more.

However, women and men are not even aware of the existence of pink tax, or gender tax. In a survey, conducted with a small sample size in the age group of 18-25, 67 percent of the respondents had never heard either of the terms. Interestingly, 93 percent of the respondents felt that similar consumer products were charged at a higher price for women than for men.

A sense of this differential pricing or 'taxing' women higher for products was brought home during the widespread agitation in India for the removal of Goods and Services Tax (GST) on sanitary napkins.

The uproar and campaigns by women's organisations and gender activists led to a rollback of the 12 percent GST in July 2018. On the surface, it seemed like a win for women because a product for their health and hygiene had been made cheaper. In reality, sanitary napkins remained just as expensive and therefore beyond the reach of most Indian women. This is because manufacturers could not claim input tax credit any longer.

"In general, most of our choices in life are determined by marketing and advertising.  With this in mind, we are drawn towards products that are marketed to make us feel prettier or fairer, etc. For this, I am certain we pay the 'extra' price," said Dr. Surbhi Singh, a practicing gynaecologist and founder and president of the menstrual awareness NGO 'Sacchi Saheli'.

Some commentators believe that gender tax is not a black-and-white issue.

Advertising professional and commentator Geeta Rao, said, "There are certain categories where men's products are more expensive, and there are others where products of women are costlier. For example, women's grooming and beauty products are far more expensive than men's, but business suits for men tend to be more expensive than for women. Bikes and cars targeting men are far more expensive than cars and bikes targeting women."

While Mr. Bijoor says, "Category of products which are sold to women more, there is undoubtedly a premium which is put on these products and services. The same thing happens to items related to kid garments. A particular colour might cost different than the other. It'll be wrong to say that it's a pink tax. If at all there will be a pink Bolero launched by Mahindra, it is quite likely that it would go at a discount over the regular version. Because the idea will be to give it at a discount to women rather than ask for a premium."

Is this a trace of hidden patriarchy, then?

Indra Nooyi might make 'lady-chips' a thing in India maybe. Are cereals gender-neutral or should they be tailored specifically for women's bodies and priced differently too?

Is the range of gender-neutral products not possible in a market driven by hyper-segmentation and profits-at-any-cost?

"When it comes to fragrances and shoes, you will find they can be equally expensive for men and women. In the fashion category, a good template to look into is the bridal segment. If you look at the emphasis on the bridal trousseau or jewellery or all those accessories that go into making a bride, versus all those that go into making a groom, you'll see there is a vast disparity. Some of it is definitely created by branding, marketing and a push from the marketers; some is gender stereotyping. There is a study which says that women consumers are more susceptible to marketing because it appeals to our ‘lower’ self-esteem, but I am not sure I agree with that entirely, " said Geeta Rao.

Combine this with the fact that women often earn less than men do in the same job. This can around 20 percent less, on an average. There is a gender pay gap across professions – from movie stars to farm labour – which is weighted against women. Additionally, they often end up paying more to use the product that men do.

The issue of taxation and gender has not been taken seriously or studied in great depth. Gender tax comes in so many ways. The GST on processed wheat (atta) impacts women more because they are primarily responsible for feeding the family.

"We are talking about a normal average poor woman of the country, to whom even a difference of Rs 3 per kg on tax slab is huge", said Ritu Dewan.

If you take a radio cab, you would still be paying a gender tax, or 'Pink Transit Tax Talking', as defined in a report by Wired. As a woman, you might book a cab for reasons of safety, especially at night. But if you were a man, you might have used public transport and shelled out much less.

"Everyone will say that roads are roads. But, of course, roads and gender are related. The point is who uses them, where do they go and how frequently they are used," pointed out Dewan.

Whether it is our cities or professions or marketplaces online and offline, there is no doubt that women are paying more than men to access and use similar goods and services. Yet, gender tax is not yet an issue that causes outrage among women, even educated and gender-sensitive ones. Gender tax would be visible, perhaps, if we all knew that it exists.

 
Shraddha Sharma
first published: Jul 28, 2019 03:24 pm

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