Vermont officials warn against gender discrimination in pricing

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A haircut for a man may cost two-thirds the price of a woman's cut at the same salon. Women might pay more than men for razors or other toiletries. Dry cleaners might charge more to clean a woman's shirt than a man's.

Such instances of gender-based pricing would violate Vermont law, according to the attorney general's office and the Vermont Human Rights Commission.

"It can be very subtle, and you really have to pay a great deal of attention," Karen Richards, executive director of the Human Rights Commission, said at a news conference Thursday. The commission and the attorney general's office teamed up to highlight the issue and new guidelines for businesses, which included the examples above.

Richards said higher prices on goods and services for women extend the gender economic disparity beyond the gap in wages.

"Women are making less money, and then with this gender tax that gets attached to various items that we buy we're getting sort of a double whammy hit on our incomes," Richards said.

Pricing disparities have been the subject of attention in other parts of the country. A 2015 study by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs found that products for women are priced higher than those for men 42 percent of the time, while men's products are more expensive than women's 18 percent of the time.

The New York study cited the example of a scooter. In red, it cost $24.99. In pink, the same scooter cost $49.99.

Gender-based pricing is illegal in Vermont, according to Richards and Attorney General William Sorrell, covered both in Vermont's Public Accommodations Act and the Consumer Protection Act.

Richards and Sorrell said they were releasing the guidelines in an effort to help businesses become aware of the issue and to ensure they are setting prices for goods and services equitably. Businesses may not be aware of gender-based pricing disparities, they said.

"We don't want to need to file enforcement actions, because we want to by this guidance make clear what the legal requirements are," Sorrell said.

Richards and Sorrell also urged consumers to be aware of the issue. The guidance suggests that if shoppers find a big discrepancy, they can approach the business about it and request to pay a lower price. Consumers may also choose to avoid certain businesses if they discriminate.

If Vermonters have concerns about pricing discrepancies, they can submit a complaint to the Human Rights Commission.

Richards said the commission will first attempt to remedy the issue through an informal process — reaching out to the business to notify the owner of the issue and giving an opportunity to fix it. If the owner refuses to comply, the matter could proceed to the formal complaint process.

According to Sorrell, accountability for pricing disparities begins with the store or service provider.

"The liability, at least initially, is at the retailer level," Sorrell said. If a shop owner says the prices are coming down from wholesalers, the investigators may turn their focus in that direction.

Erin Sigrist, president-elect of the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, said prices may vary in stores based on many factors.

"Pricing is complex," Sigrist said, and generally prices are dictated at the national manufacturing level rather than in individual stores.

She said the association applauds the efforts by the attorney general and the commission to raise awareness of the issue among consumers, as well as the guidance offered to businesses.

She also referenced a comment during the news conference that store owners might not be aware there's an issue.

"Retailers are not out to harm consumers," Sigrist said.


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