Do women pay more for certain products and services than men? Are women exposed to more marketplace hazards than men because they are women? The answers to both questions are yes.
Many a woman has a story about how an auto repair or home repair firm took advantage of feminine stereotypes and tried to gouge her. Even more women probably never knew of this gender-based fraud; they just paid. Driven by exploitative images of female flightiness, insecurity, and emotionalism, too many merchants of repair, financial and legal services are defrauding women. Other sellers in the medical, pharmaceutical and cosmetic goods and services business harm women’s health.
Stories of women who have been so bilked or harmed, as in the case of silicon-gel breast implants or overprescribing of tranquilizers (twice as many as for men), make good television features. But they rarely have policy impacts because there is little aggregate data.
Now, some studies are being done in a more systematic way. Recently, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs made fifty undercover visits to used car lots. Female testers were quoted higher prices for cars 42 percent of the time. In cases where female testers were quoted higher prices, the sum was an average of $396.67 more than men were quoted for the identical car. In 22 percent of cases where male testers were quoted higher prices, their additional charge averaged only $183.18.
A careful study in 1990 of two hundred Chicago car showrooms found that for the same model car with exactly the same options, a white women paid on average $142 more than a white man, and a black man paid about $421 more. Black women got the worst deal of all, paying almost $875 more, or triple the mark-up paid by white men.
Women’s clothes, mass produced and with less material such as blouses, than men’s clothes cost more. Women’s clothes, such as suits, cost more to dryclean than men’s suits. Alterations cost more for new clothes by women than by men. Women’s apparel is often more poorly made than men’s. There is the shoddy quality of panty hose that is a costly source of frustration. And of course, the higher priced women’s shoes that are painful to wear and harmful to posture make men’s shoes look downright practical.
Because a largely male-dominated (though less so) medical profession has been inclined to view women’s problems as more psychological and men’s problems as more physiological, mood-altering drugs are more often prescribed for women. These often cause unpleasant or dangerous side-effects.
Beauty and diet-aides cause side-effect problems. Accutane is a grossly over-prescribed drug, according to Dr. Sidney Wolfe, author of Worst Pills, Best Pills. Accutane can cause serious birth defects in pregnant women. Yet, Dr. Wolfe asserts, ten to twenty times the number of women who should be taking the drug are doing so.
A large number of unnecessary hysterectomies and cesarian sections have prompted medical journal articles denouncing these reckless practices which, coincidentally, generate higher fees. Just in two decades (1970 to 1989), the percentage of mothers delivered by cesarean section has grown from 5.5 percent to 23.8 percent. Medical analysts don’t buy the fear of malpractice argument for these operations. “You don’t commit malpractice due to some presumed fear of malpractice litigation,” said one Doctor.
The same New York City Department of Consumer Affairs has published a report on how divorce lawyers rip-off women who are already at a severe disadvantage in terms of property and cash holdings compared to their husband. Gender bias is still common throughout the legal system.
(For information about marketplace gender bias, write to Mark Green, Commissioner of Consumer Protection, City Hall, New York, New York.)