Sex and shopping: Why women still get a raw deal when it comes to paying

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The Independent Online
Women can no longer be charged more than men in New York for items such as haircuts and dry cleaning, after the city authority outlawed `gender pricing'. But here in Britain, women still pay more than men for many everyday services. Glenda Cooper, Social Affairs Correspondent and Rosa Prince investigate why there's no such thing as a cheap woman.

Sex and shopping have long been linked in most women's minds, but never quite so literally. New York City has followed California in outlawing gender discrimination in pricing.

Put simply this means hairdressing salons will be unable to have prices which distinguish between men and women or face a $500 (pounds 300) fine. The same goes for dry cleaners who can no longer charge more for a blouse than a shirt.

However, here in Britain, it's still hard to be a woman. Technically section 29 of the Sex Discrimination Act outlaws gender discrimination on goods and services. In practice, a spokeswoman explains it can be difficult to prove. "Many shops charge women higher prices because they say it costs more in labour and overheads. It's very difficult to prove. Manufacturers and retailers say different prices for men and women are due to different costs in manufacturing or provision of services and so the Sex Discrimination Act is unlikely to apply."

A spokeswoman from the Consumers' Association said that they had done no research into the area of gender pricing but added that she felt "it should be part of our agenda".

Ray Seymour, general secretary of the National Hairdressers' Federation, countered yesterday that higher prices in the salon were justified. "The basic situation is that it does cost more to cut ladies' hair than men's." he said.

"Most ladies' hair is below the ears, is longer than men's and needs more styling. In the same way, the cost of cutting a bald man's hair is the same as anyone else even though he has less hair."

Introducing similar measures in Britain he feels would be disastrous: "You can get more men passing over a seat than women in an hour. So if you're only cutting women's hair you have less customers. It would hit the salons hard. They couldn't afford to bring the prices down so they would charge men as much as women and end up penalising men. Why does everything have to be PC these days?"

Still there is evidence that in some areas that prices are evening out - for example in dry cleaning. Alan Maycock, of Jeeves of Belgravia, said yesterday: "Years ago there were circumstances when the cost of cleaning a lady's shirt was greater than a man's. But the ladies complained and most dry cleaners now charge the same."

Where women tend to get their own back is car insurance, with young women sometimes getting quotes which are pounds 100 less than young men. The reasons women are considered a safer bet is because men under 40 are twice as likely as women to drive without due or reasonable care and attention and twice as likely to break the speed limit."

"Young women behave rather differently than young men when they get behind a steering wheel," said David Steven of Admiral Insurance.

"Young men have much higher numbers of driving convictions and more claims per person. And when they do crash it tends to be much harder than when young women do, so the claim is more."

Miranda Seymour of Direct Line added: "The difference in the rate we charge for men and women is all based on experience. Our experience is that females in the younger age groups make less claims. By about the age of 40, the difference between the two has evened out."

There are some areas where women may still win out, like "ladies' nights" in pubs and clubs where women get subsidised drinks to attract their (civilising) custom, but even this is dying out. A spokesman for the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association said: "That sort of thing has gone out like the old rules that a woman had to be seated or that they wouldn't serve a woman wearing trousers. Certainly I'm not aware that it ever happens in pubs now."