Hair salons do it, dry cleaners do it, and so do department stores selling health and beauty products. Now France wants to know why, for some goods and services, women seem to be paying more than men.
The question was first taken up by a group of French activists inspired by a study that found American women overpay hundreds of dollars a year for the same products. The activists persuaded the Economy Ministry this month to launch an in-depth study to determine what price differences exist in France, the reasons behind them and which sectors are most affected. Findings are expected early next year.
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A quick look by The Associated Press at haircut prices and store aisles in Paris found some disparities. Haircut: women 43 euros, men 26. Roll-on deodorant: women 2.04 euros, men 1.96. Shaving gel: 2.87 euros in a pink canister, 2.39 in a blue one.
"Honestly, like many women I had noticed it and then I moved on to other things," Pascale Boistard, France's minister for women's rights, told The Associated Press in an interview. "It is a fact that this happens in everyday life and with products that are commonly used. These disparities mean that by the end of the year, the sum is not negligible."
New York City and California have outlawed the practice of charging differently for products or services according to gender, and in California companies face fines up to $4,000 if they're caught breaking the law. In New York city, periodic sweeps have found nail salons go in a different direction, charging men more for manicures, pedicures and waxing. The EU requires member countries to have legislation ensuring men and women are treated equally but does not specify how.
In France, activist group Georgette Sand — named tongue-in-cheek after French author George Sand, who used a male pseudonym to be taken more seriously as a writer — is encouraging contributions to a photo blog of products priced differently according to gender. It now includes entries for painkillers, face lotion, even pepper-spray canisters. Even the youngest customers are affected — a pink plush bear costs 8 cents more than its blue counterpart.
The group took its cue from a California state government study that found American women on average pay $1,300 more than men every year for identical products. Consumer Reports found similar disparities in 2010.
"It's a first victory if people are asking themselves the question when they walk into a store and compare prices," said Gaelle Couraud of Georgette Sand. "What we're asking for is the end of gendered marketing, that prices be determined not by the sex of the purchaser but by the function of the product or the service rendered."
Monoprix, one of the French chains targeted by the campaign, responded by explaining that the price differences had nothing to do with the sex of the customer.
"The differences in price between products referenced for women and men can be explained by their intrinsic characteristics and their sales volumes," the company said in response to a petition signed by 40,000 consumers.
The CEO of L'Oreal, speaking at a press conference on the day the government announced its study, questioned the premise entirely, saying he thought people were "inventing something." And Fabien Provost, artistic director of the Franck Provost group of hair salons, said it makes no sense to charge women and men the same amount for what is essentially a different service.
That view got some legal backing elsewhere in Europe: This month, a Danish appeals court threw out a 2012 ruling that barred different haircut prices for men and women, saying a women's cut is "so technically more demanding that it is the reason for the price difference."
In the United States, the California and New York City laws remain outliers. The issue went up to the Supreme Court, where lawyers argued unsuccessfully for the abolition of different tariffs for clothing for men and women.
"We don't want to create a unisex world. It's boring and it's not accurate," said Michael Cone, one of the lawyers in the tariff case. "It has to be that the gender discrimination is wrong."
Helene Masse-Dessen, a French lawyer who worked on a 2010 study on how European Union countries implement gender equality requirements, said the price differences could be bridged under current anti-discrimination legislation in France. She noted that a court has already ruled that auto insurance rates, for example, cannot be different for men and women.
"There are legal means to combat it," she said. "It's not easy, but they're there."
Boistard said she hoped the government would be able to put a response in place early in 2015.
"Men are afraid that we'll raise their prices to match those of women, but what we're hoping to do is bring more justice and normality to this," she said. "Women are consumers and citizens, and businesses have an interest in getting rid of injustices that affect them. There are things that can be settled without the law, without forcing it."
Jan Olsen contributed from Copenhagen, Denmark.