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The she-cession and she-flation are colliding

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Women walking at a shopping mall in Arlington, Virginia.

For women, the effects of inflation are hitting hard. Women do most household shopping, and their products are often priced higher than comparable items bought by men. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

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You’ve probably heard of the “pink tax” — the higher prices companies charge women than men for comparable items like deodorant and razors. Why do they do that?

“I mean, one very simple reason is because companies can get away with it,” said Vicki Morwitz, a marketing professor at Columbia Business School.

Some of this is discrimination. But there are logical reasons too. For instance, women’s haircuts can take more time. There are also strategic reasons. Companies might, say, use a higher-quality fabric for a blouse than a men’s shirt because it allows them to mark up the price more.

“Women may just value those things and be willing to pay more to obtain those features,” Morwitz said.

Retailers use the same tactics when they raise prices, which means inflation is hitting women harder than men.

Krish Thyagarajan, president of the retail analytics company DataWeave, looked at six months of pricing data across 1 million products — mostly apparel and shoes.

“A higher proportion of product on the women’s side saw a higher increase,” he said. “So women’s seems to be kind of gyrating more than men’s.”

The data shows prices for women’s clothing and shoes increased about 15%, which is about 4 percentage points more than for men’s. This gap may not sound like much. But women already make only 83 cents for every $1 a man makes. Women of color make even less. 

It also has a psychological effect. Francesco D’Acunto, a professor of finance at Boston College, said higher prices for products like jeans may make women more sensitive to inflation in general — especially since women do most of the household shopping. 

“They actually find inflation much more visible. And therefore they think more about inflation. They actually expect systematically that inflation will be higher,” he said.

This matters a lot because expectations about inflation change how people look at their personal economies, including whether their wages are worth working for.

“And so this type of effect could be important and unfortunately, again, another negative potential effect for the case of women because it would reduce their labor force participation,” D’Acunto said.

The she-cession and she-flation are colliding. And this could further slow women’s return to the workforce. It’s also putting a lot more stress on women who already feel stretched thin after more than two years of pandemic parenting.

Stacey Long is 42 and lives in Chatham, Massachusetts. The restaurant she served at laid her off at the beginning of the pandemic. She was also pregnant with her second child, which made her extra-worried about the virus. Plus, she and her boyfriend, who works as a builder and fisherman, couldn’t find child care for her toddler.

“And then if you find any, the prices are so high. And that’s your entire paycheck, so then almost like, what is the point?” she said.

Meanwhile, rising food prices drove her to switch to generic brand formula for her baby, and she spends more time couponing and getting creative in the kitchen.

“I’m trying to make really awesome meals, but yet, what can you do with a family pack of chicken legs? You can only stretch that so far to make something, you know?”

Long serves her family at home but really misses serving at the restaurant. She’s an extrovert and likes interacting with customers. She’s hoping to get back to work two nights a week this summer.

“Well, I definitely need my sanity. And with two little boys, I’m going to work somehow. I’m going to figure it out,” she said, laughing.

But amid soaring prices and high child care costs, work might contribute more to her sanity than to her family’s purchasing power.

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