If you shop at any online retailer or brick-and-mortar store, you’ll get a crash course in advertising based on gender.
“Masculine” products come in black or navy blue packaging with boutique brand names like Bull Dog, Vikings Blade, and Rugged and Dapper. If the products have a fragrance, it’s a muskier scent.
Meanwhile, “female” products are hard to miss: an explosion of pink and light purple, with an added dose of glitter. If scented, the fragrances are fruity and floral, like sweet pea and violet, apple blossom, and raspberry rain — whatever that is.
While scent and color are perhaps the most obvious difference between products traditionally aimed at men and women, there’s another, subtler difference: the price tag. And it’s costing those who buy products aimed at women significantly more.
The ‘pink tax’
Gender-based pricing, also known as “pink tax,” is an upcharge on products traditionally intended for women which have only cosmetic differences from comparable products traditionally intended for men.
In other words, it’s not actually a tax.
It’s an “income-generating scenario for private companies who found a way to make their product look either more directed to or more appropriate for the population and saw that as a moneymaker,” explains Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a lawyer, vice president for the Brennan School of Justice at NYU School of Law, and co-founder of Period Equity.
“I think the motivations around the pink tax come more explicitly from a classic capitalist stance: If you can make money off of it, you should,” she continues.
Yet pink tax is not a new phenomenon. Over the past 20 years, California, Connecticut, Florida, and South Dakota have released reports on gender pricing in their states. In 2010, Consumer Reports highlighted the matter nationally with a study that found, at the time, women paid as much as 50 percent more than men did for similar products.
The issue was delineated more finely in 2015 when the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs released a report about price disparities for 794 comparable products from 91 brands sold throughout the city.
The report examined five different industries, such as personal care products or senior/home healthcare products. These encompassed 35 product categories, such as bodywash or shampoo. In every single of those five industries, consumer goods marketed to women and girls cost more. The same was the case in all but five of the 35 product categories.
Researchers looked at 106 products in the toys and accessories category and found that, on average, those intended for girls were priced 7 percent higher.
The most egregious upcharges, however, were among personal care products.
For example, a five-pack of Schick Hydro cartridges in purple packaging cost $18.49, while the same count of Schick Hydro refills in blue packaging cost $14.99.
Again, other than their packaging color, the products look exactly the same.
NYC’s report found women faced an average price difference of 13 percent for personal care products among the 122 products compared in the study. And the authors aptly noted that these items, such as shaving gel and deodorant, are the ones purchased most frequently compared with other categories — meaning that the costs add up over time. While this is unfair for all those shopping for these products, that 13 percent price increase hits women and girls who come from lower income households even harder.
Legislative attempts, however, could correct the pink tax. In 1995, then-Assemblywoman Jackie Speier successfully passed a bill that forbade gender pricing of services, such as haircuts.
Now as a Congresswoman, Rep. Speier (D-CA) is going national: She reintroduced the Pink Tax Repeal Act this year to specifically address products subject to the pink tax. (An earlier version of the bill introduced in 2016 failed to make it out of committee). If the new bill passes, it would allow state attorneys general “to take civil action on consumers wronged by discriminatory practices.” In other words, they can go directly after businesses that charge men and women different prices.
The ‘tampon tax’
The pink tax isn’t the only upcharge that affects women. There’s also the “tampon tax,” which refers to the sales tax applied to feminine hygiene items such as pads, liners, tampons, and cups.
Currently, 36 states still apply sales tax to these necessary menstrual items, according to data from Weiss-Wolf’s organization Period Equity. The sales tax on these products vary and are based on the state’s tax code.
So what? You might wonder. Everyone pays sales tax. It seems fair that tampons and pads have a sales tax, too.
Not quite, said Weiss-Wolf. States establish their own tax exemptions, and in her book Periods Gone Public: Taking A Stand for Menstrual Equity, she elaborates on some very not-so-necessary exemptions some states have.
“I went through every tax code in every state that didn't exempt menstrual products to see what they did exempt, and the list is ridiculous,” Weiss-Wolf tells Healthline. The tax-exempt items, listed both in Weiss-Wolf’s book and ones Healthline tracked down, range from marshmallows in Florida to cooking wine in California. Maine is snowmobiles, and it’s barbecue sunflower seeds in Indiana and gun club memberships in Wisconsin.
If barbecue sunflower seeds are tax-exempt, argues Weiss-Wolf, then feminine hygiene products should be, too.
The tampon tax is often incorrectly referred to as a luxury tax, Weiss-Wolf explains. Rather, it’s an ordinary sales tax applied to all goods — but since only people who menstruate use feminine hygiene products, the tax disproportionately affects us.
Just like the upcharge on personal care items geared for women, the small amounts of sales tax we shell out every month to manage Aunt Flo adds up over a lifetime, and this adversely affects women from low-income households.
“This issue has real resonance for people,” Weiss-Wolf tells Healthline. “I think partly because the experience of menstruation is so universal for anybody who's experienced it, as is the understanding that being able to manage it is so essential to one's ability to participate fully in daily life and have a dignified existence.”
Both men and women of all political stripes understand that the “economics of menstruation,” as Weiss-Wolf calls it, is involuntary. Her group Period Equity took this issue nationwide in 2015 by partnering with Cosmopolitan magazine on a Change.org petition to “axe the tampon tax.” But sales tax must be addressed by advocates state by state.
And there’s a long way to go.
Five states — Alaska, Delaware, New Hampshire, Montana, and Oregon — don’t have a sales tax to begin with, so pads and tampons aren’t taxed there. Meanwhile, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania had previously legislated on their own to remove sales tax from these items, according to Periods Gone Public.
Since 2015, thanks to increased advocacy around period equity, 24 states have introduced bills to exempt pads and tampons from sales tax. However, only Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, and New York have been successful in making these sanitary necessities tax-exempt so far. That said, Arizona, Nebraska, and Virginia introduced tampon tax bills in their legislatures in 2018.
So, why has it taken this long to even have this conversation?
“The most realistic scenario is that most of our legislators don’t menstruate, so they weren't really thinking about it in any sort of constructive way,” says Weiss-Wolf.
Making tampons and pads more accessible
In addition to the tampon tax, menstrual equity advocacy is really gaining steam around the accessibility of feminine hygiene products for homeless women and women in prisons and public schools.
“They’re as necessary as toilet paper,” said a City Councilwoman in 2016 when NYC voted to make feminine hygiene products free in schools, shelters, and jails. Reportedly 300,000 schoolgirls ages 11 to 18 and 23,000 women and girls living in shelters in NYC were affected by this groundbreaking bill.
Having access to these sanitary items grant dignity and enable women and girls to fully participate in society.
“Even in this current political environment, which is so toxic and so polarized… this is one area [of accessibility that has] proven to transcend partisanship and have really strong support on both sides of the aisle,” says Weiss-Wolf.
This year, New York State voted to provide free feminine hygiene products in girls’ restrooms for grades 6 through 12.
“This issue has real resonance for people. I think partly because the experience of menstruation is so universal for anybody who's experienced it, as is the understanding that being able to manage it is so essential to one's ability to participate fully in daily life and have a dignified existence.” — Jennifer Weiss-Wolf
In 2015 and 2017, a Wisconsin lawmaker introduced a bill to make pads and tampons available for free at public schools, schools that use the state’s voucher program, and in government buildings. In Canada, a city councilor in Toronto proposed a similar bill for homeless shelters.
Countries leading the way
Menstrual equity has ways to go in the majority of America’s states, and we can look to other countries to for inspiration of what could be.
- Kenya ditched its sales tax on feminine hygiene products in 2004 and has allocated millions towards distributing pads in schools in an effort to boost girls’ attendance.
- Canada ditched its goods and services tax (similar to sales tax) on tampons in 2015. Australia voted to do the same just last month, although it needs further approval by individual territories.
- A pilot program in Aberdeen, Scotland is distributing feminine hygiene products to women in low-income households as a test for a possible larger program.
- The United Kingdom also eliminated the tampon tax, although there are Brexit-related reasons it won’t go into effect yet. To compensate, several major chains in the UK, such as Tesco, have cut prices on feminine hygiene products themselves.
The United States is finally having a long overdue discussion about the costs associated with our biology. As many of us have grown to love a floral-scented deodorant, there’s not much incentive for companies to stop making them different — but at least they can stop upcharging us for it.
And while having a period (and the cramps that go with it) may never be a pleasant experience, discussion around the economics of menstruation seems to be prompting more practicality and compassion for those that need products to manage it.
Jessica Wakeman is a writer and editor focusing on women’s political, social, and cultural issues. Originally from Connecticut, she studied journalism and gender and sexuality studies at NYU. She has previously been an editor at The Frisky, Daily Dot, HelloGiggles, YouBeauty, and Someecards, and has also worked for Huffington Post, Radar Magazine, and NYmag.com. Her writing has appeared in a number of print and online titles, including Glamour, Rolling Stone, Bitch, the New York Daily News, the New York Times Review of Books, The Cut, Bustle, and Romper. She’s on the board of directors of Bitch Media, a feminist media nonprofit. She resides in Brooklyn with her husband. See more of her work on her website and follow her on Twitter.