Women are often charged more than men for dry cleaning and hair cuts, according to a report released Thursday by a Maryland consumer watchdog group.
The Maryland Public Interest Research Group found that 31 of 50 hair salons surveyed in Maryland in September charged women up to $15 more than men for a basic shampoo, cut and blow dry.
At 24 of the 50 dry cleaners MaryPIRG surveyed in the state, a woman’s cotton, collared shirt cost an average of 79 cents more to wash and press than a comparable men’s shirt.
About one-fifth of the dry cleaners charged more to dry clean a woman’s cotton, collared shirt.
“Women are still being taken to the cleaners by gender pricing,” said Katie Nohe, a consumer advocate for MaryPIRG. “We would not tolerate businesses that charged higher prices for any race because of their color, and we should not tolerant gender- based price discrimination, either.”
Charging men and women different prices for the same services is illegal in Maryland, unless a business can show it has a “good and rational” reason to charge one sex more, said Kevin Higgins, mediation supervisor for the Maryland attorney general’s consumer protection division.
Some dry-cleaning store owners and hair stylists said prices differ because services for women are more complicated and time- consuming.
At The Cutting Edge in Dunkirk, no matter how long a man’s hair is, he pays $15 for a shampoo, cut and blow dry. For the same services, a woman is charged $24, no matter how short her hair is, said stylist Linda Walker.
Walker said the prices are not discriminatory because women’s hair is thicker, takes longer to blow dry and requires more styling.
Jefferson Cleaners in Frederick charges more for laundering women’s shirts because they do not fit in the store’s pressing machine, designed for men’s shirts, said owner Avrum Lee.
“If a woman’s shirt is big, the same size as a man’s, it is the same price, $1.30,” Lee said. “But most are small and must be hand-pressed, so it’s $2.45.”
The Mid-Atlantic Cleaners and Launderers Association recommends that prices not be based on whether a garment fits in any particular device, unless the garment is much smaller or larger than the range of normal sizes for men’s and women’s clothes.
George Washington University Law School Professor John Banzhaf agrees with the association’s recommendation. He filed a suit in the District of Columbia that resulted in a city law that all dry cleaners, regardless of the size of their pressing machine, must charge the same for men’s and women’s shirts.
“It is their problem if they have old, out-of-date machines,” Banzhaf said. “The point of equal protection is they cannot make decisions based on generalizations.”
Nohe said one reason women have been “unwittingly duped” into paying more is that prices were not posted at two-thirds of the dry cleaners surveyed and one half of the hair salons.
To remedy the situation, MaryPIRG suggested the Maryland General Assembly pass a law requiring all service providers to list their prices in clear view of the customer and provide any consumer with such a list over the phone.
“That way, the information is put in the consumers’ hands,” Nohe said. “It will also make retailers think about what they base their prices on.”
House Economic Matters Committee Chairman Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said the committee may hold hearings on the issue early in 1999 to see if there is enough concern to warrant such a bill.
The committee vice chairman, Montgomery County Democrat Michael R. Gordon, said he does not think a bill requiring businesses to post their prices would pass, because it would “pit regulations against small businesses.”
Busch said current laws against discrimination already offer consumers the ability to redress price biases.
Consumers with discrimination complaints can turn to the Maryland attorney general’s consumer protection division, or file a complaint with the state’s Human Relations Commission, which investigates businesses for discrimination and levies fines.
Monica Trawinski, manager of Gallery Hair Designs in Baltimore, conceded her salon’s $10 difference in prices for basic men’s and women’s hair cuts “sounds a bit sexist. “But you do more styling with a woman’s hair. It’s just the way it’s always been,” Trawinski said. -30-