State Bans Gender Bias in Service Pricing


Gov. Pete Wilson on Friday signed a bill barring merchants from charging women more than men--solely on the basis of gender--for haircuts, dry cleaning, car repairs and other services.

The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, makes California the first state to specifically prohibit gender discrimination in pricing, according to its author, Assemblywoman Jackie Speier (D-Burlingame).

“At long last, women are free from the wrinkles of discrimination in the marketplace,” Speier said. California women could save up to $1,350 apiece each year under the new law, Assembly analysts predict, although it is also possible that merchants will raise some prices to reach equality.


Numerous studies have shown that women pay a so-called “gender tax” in certain arenas of commerce. One survey by the Assembly Office of Research found that 40% of hair salons charged women from $2.50 to $25 more for similar services. Dry cleaners charged an average of $2 more to launder a woman’s shirt, the survey found.

Other research has shown that department stores routinely make women pay for alterations to business suits. Men’s suits, by contrast, often are altered free.

Speier’s bill--her second attempt to ban gender-based pricing--had tough sledding in the Legislature. Some critics complained that such a law was unnecessary since discrimination is already illegal under the Unruh Civil Rights Act. Others accused Speier of meddling with the marketplace, suggesting that women should merely shop around for fair prices.

Speier said that while the Unruh Act does prohibit discrimination in pricing, surveys prove it is not protecting women. As for the marketplace argument: “If something is fundamentally unfair,” she said, “why should I have to shop around?”

At J. Fontaine’s, a Sacramento beauty salon where many stylists charge women $5 more than men for a haircut, reaction to the new law was surprisingly positive.

“If it takes an hour to cut a man’s hair, and an hour to cut a woman’s hair, then it really isn’t fair to charge the woman more,” said Debbie Fontaine, salon receptionist.


Wilson’s signature came as something of a surprise, because the governor vetoed a similar bill by Speier last year. At that time, Wilson said the legislation would have placed an “unreasonable burden” on businesses.

On Friday, Wilson said the 1995 version of Speier’s bill (AB 1100) is far narrower. This year’s legislation, for instance, allows a merchant to charge a higher price for services that require more time and cost to deliver. In addition, the new bill applies only to services, unlike last year’s, which also targeted products.

“This measure makes it clear that charging men and women different prices for services requiring the same amount of time, difficulty and cost to deliver is a violation of law,” Wilson said.

Under the law, those encountering gender-based pricing can sue in civil court. A plaintiff can recover a minimum of $1,000 or up to three times her damages and lawyer fees.