Last year, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, did what should have been done ages ago – he zero-rated sanitary products for VAT. Sanitary products were moved from the “luxuries” list and added to the “essentials” list. And while a 15% saving may not be a life-saving amount of money, R5 off of a R40 a pack of pads is not small change to many South Africans.
And for those who do not see this as a major victory because the amount is so small, the effect for the truly needy so little, then perhaps the value is in the statement it makes. A statement that is priceless – that woman should no longer be penalised for being women. How has it taken this long for a period (a biological imperative, that is in no universe an effing luxury, and is certainly not something we choose to indulge in) to be seen as in need of categorisation as essential sanitary products and not luxury ones?
The “Tampon Tax” is just one of many gender discriminations women experience when it comes to their finances.
The most obvious and well-documented tax women are subjected to comes in the form of the gender pay gap. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Gender Gap Report, South African men earned about R6 607 more than woman monthly. The 2018 report showed this had not gotten any better, in fact, it has worsened as South Africa has plunged to 117 out of 149 counties on wage equality for similar work.
So, not only are we as women being paid less for doing the same work, we are (or at least until recently we were) taxed on the supposed luxury of having a period, and we pay more for products purely because they are products created for, but more importantly marketed to, women. Oh, and they have pretty little splashes of pink and lilac on the packaging. So, you know, there’s that.
This last type of financial gender discrimination is affectionately known as “Pink Tax”. Cute, hey? But as innocuous as it sounds, it is far from harmless. The existence of this tax has not been proven without a shadow of a doubt, but having worked in advertising and marketing for over a decade, I know that it undoubtedly exists. It may not be applied as broadly as a tax usually is, but it absolutely exists. How do I know this? Because it leverages a basic principle of marketing: Target market segmentation.
Marketing is all about identifying needs and desires of a particular market and then designing products and communication to opportunistically play on those needs and desires, to make consumers feel they need these products, and the price is worth the reward. Marketing also uses data of past behaviour to predict future behaviour, and for whatever reason – say maybe decades, if not centuries, of women being told they need to look attractive, to preserve their youth and that beauty comes at a price – women are willing to pay whatever it takes for that beauty.
Marketers are more than happy to oblige, and so certain products that are almost identical in make, quality, function and design are sold at different prices – because marketers know men won’t spend a lot on beauty and women will. This difference in consumerism is exploited.
We are a soft target. And marketers the world round see dollar signs when they have us in their sights with a product will appeal to women. There is even an inside joke or loose term for it in marketing – “shrink it and pink it”. The theory is that women will pay more for a product that is of a smaller quantity and is branded as being for women specifically (or pink) just because marketing tells us we should. We are manipulated into spending more money we do not have on products we do not necessarily need.
Because we live in capitalist times and business is driven by the bottom line, and the bottom line is driven by squeezing margins as needed to drive profit. And boy oh boy are girls profitable.
As I said “Pink Tax” has not been empirically proven to exist but anecdotally one can see it does, especially in certain categories and products.
Men received a R234 saving, and that is just on seven items, imagine what the savings would look like on the annual personal care, beauty and fashion purchases men and women make. Now, I understand men have simpler needs when it comes to beauty and personal care and fashion, but when comparing apples with apples the tax is there. And to me this is unethical, these brands are playing on women’s socially conditioned insecurities and charging them extra for the pleasure.
A survey done by Sanlam in 2018 revealed that 93.4% of women claim to spend over R100 on monthly toiletries, while only 76% of men claim that they do too. Even in less expected categories such as medical screenings and contraception, women are spending more. Danelle van Heerde, head of advice processes at Sanlam Personal Finance says, “To drastically oversimplify the situation, women are generally earning less and paying more.”
“Now add to this the fact that women generally have to pay more than men for basic monthly necessities and one begins to perceive the full spectrum of challenges to women achieving financial independence,” says Van Heerde.
In 2015, the New York Department for Consumer Affairs conducted a study of gender pricing in the city. It analysed goods in five industries, 24 shops, 91 brands, 35 product categories and 794 products. It found in all five industries women paid more. The department found that women’s products cost more in 42% of samples, and men’s products cost more in 18% of samples.
“Over the course of a woman’s life, the financial impact of these gender-based pricing disparities is significant,” the study said.
And while the “Pink Tax” is more easily observed by looking at the price tag of a blue and pink razor, gender pricing discrimination is in action in many other financial systems. Some research studies have found that women tend to be charged higher interest rates on mortgages, quoted higher than men for services and even the tax system has proven to treat men and women differently.
Thankfully, South Africa seems to have corrected some of the more explicit problems in our tax system, such as higher tax rates for single people and married women than for men.
So, what can you do to avoid the “Pink Tax” and pay the same as men? Well, obviously you can buy blue instead of pink. But this feels like a side-stepping of a bigger issue, it feels like women once more are fitting into the system instead of the system working for them. Or more accurately, women are working hard to make a system not built for them work for them.
The only way big business – and the unequal structures that are in place and work against women’s fight for equality – will change is through the full might of women and their purchasing power to reject those who do not respect our right to that equality.
Question things, do not just accept the price tag at face value, challenge brands, call them out using the platform that technology has given you in social media. Research brands before you buy and stop supporting brands that exploit gender bias, instead choosing to support brands that behave ethically and fairly.
Money talks, so let’s start shouting, loudly.
Leigh Tayler is a writer, a Leo, a feminist, a fan of The Walking Dead, a lover of all things unicorn and nearly succumbs to rage strokes on the daily. Oh, and she also happens to be a mother to one small feral child. She wears her heart on her sleeve and invariably tells it like it is, the good the bad and the ugly. She juggles her writing, her family, her sanity in-between a demanding career in advertising. She has no shame in sharing her harebrained and high-strung anecdotes on her experience of motherhood, no sugar coating, no gloss, just her blunt truth with a healthy side order of sarcasm. Find her on her blog, The Ugly Truth of Being a Mom.