The Pink Tax is a term that has gone viral in the last couple of years. It refers broadly to a type of sex-based discrimination faced by women in the Western world – they are forced to pay more for items, both essential and luxury, simply because they are ‘pink’. Jingles and listicles circulate Facebook loudly advertising the injustice, citing statistics, such as women having to pay 18,000 pounds more over their lifetimes than men. Combined with the pay gap, this sum is jaw dropping. But who is responsible for this inequity? How is the ‘tax’ manifested? And is there anything women can do to avoid it?
One look a dictionary proves that the phrase ‘Pink Tax’ is actually something of a misnomer. What most people think of as ‘the pink tax’ is actually a combination of manufacturer policy, company policy, and government policy. A tax is quite explicit in its definition: compulsory contribution to state revenue, levied by the government. Citizens pay taxes to the state so the state in turn can afford to support citizens in essential areas (healthcare, infrastructure, etc.). Not all items are taxed – food, along with other items deemed ‘essential’, are exempt. Part of the Pink Tax involves taxation, as feminine hygiene products, such as pads and tampons, attract the Goods and Services Tax (GST). In the eyes of many, these items should be classed as essential and therefore exempt from tax. But a large part of the Pink Tax actually has nothing to do with taxation, and everything to do with feminine marketing and gender norms that are continually obeyed.
Feminine marketing is not a new sensation, and in Western society pink has been associated with femininity for decades (the 1930s and ’40s saw pink from masculine to feminine). In the 21st century, everything from pens to shampoo has male and female variants. There has been some push against pink and its association with womanhood, but not enough for any large-scale societal reform. From a broad perspective, pink still means girl, and blue still means boy.
In 2015, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs conducted a study in which they found pink items consistently cost more than generic colours. A red scooter cost 24.99 USD while the pink model cost 49 USD. On average, women pay 13% more for soaps and other hygiene products. Is it unjust? Certainly. But companies know that they stand to profit from charging female consumers more. A critique of that mentality is a critique of capitalism as a whole – supply follows demand, and women continue to demand. Campaigning against companies to force them to charge the same price for all of their products is ineffective and overlooks a glaring solution: don’t buy pink. The information about the price inflation is widespread; to combat the unfairness, demonstrating that we will not accept it by refusing to buy into the schemes is a far more direct way to make an impact. The reality is that corporations speak in profits, and the best way to effect change is to operate in a language they understand.
The actual Pink Tax is a more complex issue and is not so easily solved. Menstruation, while not exclusively a woman’s experience, affects at least 50% of the population and is for the most part unavoidable. As previously mentioned, pads and tampons are taxed under the GST. The argument against this is twofold: that the taxation of something necessary is wrong, and that given pads and tampons are essential for female existence, the tax qualifies as institutionalised discrimination.
The first argument is harder to maintain when viewed from a historical lens. 1888 was when tampons were first invented, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that disposable period products started to hit markets in any substantial form. Even when they became common, they were used primarily by upper class women because they were too expensive for anyone else to afford. In short: they were luxuries, and they were taxed as such. The much more common alternatives were reusable cloths or padding. But especially in the last 20 years, huge advances have been made both in terms of product design and product availability. Now pads and tampons are easily the most widely used forms of feminine hygiene product and they are afforded by nearly all women in Western society.
It is difficult to argue that pads are still a luxury, especially as Western society has evolved to the point where what was considered luxury has now become essential (healthcare, for example, is now regarded by many as a human right). But the question of luxuries opens the door to other conversations about luxury products. Should toilet paper be exempt from the GST? What about drugs such as ibuprofen or paracetamol for coping with the painful once-monthly symptoms of menstruation? There are countless items that are necessary but not deemed essential, including some products women need at disproportionate rates. The ‘luxury’ argument is too filled with holes to be effective in making any real change.
It is, however, also the responsibility of the government to take action against discrimination and create an even playing field for its citizens. Compensating for gender differences is a crucial part of that task. With this in mind, perhaps the focus should not be on erasing the tax from tampons and pads (which would reduce the price by only a few cents), but on demanding that feminine hygiene products be provided for free by the state. As Eleanor Robertson wrote in her article on the subject: if it’s wrong for the state to charge women for having menstruating bodies, it’s wrong for the state to allow an industry to profit from women for the same reason. It is the companies selling the products that drive the high costs, and the state should take action against such blatant discrimination. The cost of providing pads and tampons could be absorbed by marginally increased taxes on the entire population, and it would avoid the rabbit hole of trying to be rid of the GST.
The cost of feminine products (both essential and not) is too high and unfair. But the fight against overpriced Pink items should be fought on an individual level by boycott rather than unrealistic proclamations aimed at companies that won’t listen. Pads and tampons are a right of women in the 21st century and it is the responsibility of the government to protect that right. To make real change, the objective must be unconvoluted and clear – attacking a universal ‘Pink Tax’ is not the solution.