This article first appeared on the Cato Institute site.

“Are Shoe Brands Charging You More Based On Your Gender?” asks Footwear News.

The website cites data compiled by Datafiniti showing that high-end footwear brands tend to price women’s shoes higher than men’s. As examples, the median price of a Gianvito Rossi pair of women’s shoes was $750 versus $469 for the gent’s.

Such data has become increasingly of interest following the New York City study entitled “From Cradle to Cane: The Cost of Being a Female Consumer,” which was then replicated by The Times newspaper in London, both purporting to show that women were discriminated against in pricing terms for a range of everyday products.

Particular examples in the surveys included children’s scooters, women’s hair products and razors. This comes alongside previous studies from the University of Central Florida and Consumer Reports, which found that women tended to pay significantly more for deodorant, haircuts, and dry cleaning.

Does all this show “sexist” pricing and discrimination against women?

Here’s some economics to bear in mind which might explain why the prices of goods might differ in these types of surveys:

  1. There can be cost of production differences in some cases: often men’s clothes and shoes tend to be more standardized than those targeted at, and bought by, women. This explains why both women’s clothing and dry cleaning of that clothing can be more expensive too, given the clothes cannot be handled in the same way. It does not seem a stretch of the imagination to suggest that women’s hair cuts tend to be more expensive as a function of length, time, and the variety of tastes as well.

  2. Though things like different colored razors have the same functional uses, the branding and designs are themselves part of the product. It might be that many women place inherent value on some products being branded as “for women” or else enjoy the scent, colors etc. Indeed, there is nothing to stop women buying male or unisex branded products (some women I know do), suggesting the continued existence of gendered variants is evidence of demand. Prices that maximize profits will be higher for women than men if women are less responsive to price (i.e. have more inelastic demand). This might be because of greater attachment to brand, or because women perceive products tailored to women as being of higher quality.

  3. For some products targeted at women, women may buy fewer units of any given brand relative to men (on products where women prefer variety), which would (other things given) lead to higher prices too.

  4. The surveys themselves may be biased towards standardized products with male and female versions. Tyler Cowen speculates, for example, that women might (on average) have a relative taste for variety and quality on these type of low value products, whereas men tend to spend more cheaply on these but more on products not differentiated by gender (such as automobiles, electronic sound systems etc).

  5. The example of nightclub cover charges, where women frequently obtain “free” entry, shows that for some goods and services men tend to pay more than women. Even in the shoe study, the data shows that the median price for moderately priced sneakers tends to be higher for men than women’s shoes. A pair of Nike women’s shoes was $80 vs. $85 for men. Some of the above economics might explain this (particularly the elasticity explanation), but with things such as nightclub nights the charge may help cover for probability of externalities – i.e. drunken violent behavior. Another example of this is vehicle insurance, where men tend to pay more than women for near identical products due to higher costs associated with a tendency towards more risky behaviors for men.

As seen then, there are many different rational explanations for why different prices might be charged for products targeted at different genders. This is certainly not an area where there are obvious “market failures” which justify government intervention.

The implicit criticism by some of this practice seems to be opposition to the mere existence of “gendered” products at all. Indeed, in a debate I had on the subject in the UK, my female opponent claimed that women did not want products to be “gendered.” If this is true, it suggests there is an exceptional entrepreneurial opportunity for companies to develop more unisex products.

Ryan Bourne occupies the R. Evan Scharf Chair for the Public Understanding of Economics at Cato.