Everything you need to know about the ‘woman tax’

A young woman having her hair dried in the hairdressers
Photograph by Getty Images/moodboard RF

The gender pay gap made headlines this month, with the U.S. Census Bureau reporting that women working full-time now make 79 cents for every dollar men make, up from 78 cents in 2013. While some celebrated that tiny step forward, the earnings gap isn’t the only factor hurting women’s bank accounts: There’s also the reality that women must use those wages to cover certain big expenses that men manage to avoid.

Are you familiar with the woman tax? You won’t find it on any IRS form, but a number studies suggest that it costs more to be a woman. Like most things relating to taxes, trying to sift through exactly what it entails is tricky. So, we decided to take a stab at pulling together the major components.

Let’s start with the clear-cut cases of female price-gouging: when women pay more for a product or service than men do.

Personal Care

A 2011 study at the University of Central Florida found that women tend to pay more for haircuts, dry cleaning and even deodorant. Of 100 salons surveyed, women paid an average of $35.02 for a basic haircut and men paid $22.78. Even though researchers asked for identical styles, the unisex salons defended their price differences, saying that women’s cuts ‘”take longer,” “are more fussy,” “are more difficult” and that women “expect more.”

With dry cleaning, the biggest discrepancy was found for shirts. A woman’s top averaged $3.95 and a man’s $2.06. (This is for a basic shirt, not including additional costs for special fabrics or embellishments like pleats.) When it comes to fighting body odor, it seemed that men and women were on equal footing—until the researchers discovered that women’s deodorants tended to have fewer ounces, yet cost an average of 30 cents more per ounce than products aimed at men.

Health insurance

Research released by the National Women’s Law Center in 2012 showed that women paid $1 billion more than men do for the same health insurance benefits. The group found that plans charged from 20% to up to 50% more for the same coverage for a 40-year-old woman vs. a 40-year-old man.


A 2007 study by the Consumer Federation of America found that women were 32% more likely to carry mortgages with high interest rates than men with similar incomes. But experts disagree as to whether this is a sign of discriminatory lending practices. In one of the few instances where women are blamed for not shopping enough, researchers suggest women are more likely to take a recommendation, than to shop for the best rate.

The “woman tax” isn’t just about paying more for identical products and services. It also includes costs that disproportionately affect women. Not surprisingly, many of these costs center around children and caregiving.

The working mom wage gap

Many of the financial costs of parenthood tend to be borne by women. While nearly every woman is affected by the gender wage gap, the shortfall is largest for working moms, shooting up to 23% for those who work full time. While it’s hard to quantify exactly what causes this differential, Ariane Hegewisch, a study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, says the cost of childcare and lack of support for paid maternity and paternity leave could be considered a tax on women, who tend to be primary caregivers and often miss work when they have to care for children.

Child care

According to the White House, the average the cost of full-time care for an infant at a child care center was $10,000 per year in 2013. Facing child care costs that eat up the majority of their after-tax paycheck, some women decide to leave the workforce. While this may make short-term sense for a family’s budget, taking extended time out of work has been shown to have a longterm impact on a woman’s earning potential, as well as her future social security benefits and retirement plans. A lack of emergency day care options can also impact a woman’s paycheck, forcing her to take unexpected (and sometimes unpaid) time off.

Leave policies

In spite of recent polices announced by companies like Netflix and Microsoft, paid parental leave is still a luxury (only 12% of US companies offer it, with most providing maternity leave rather than paternity leave.) This means the majority of working mothers have to take unpaid maternity leave, which obviously impacts their annual earnings.

While this is all pretty depressing, there are some hopeful developments. The Affordable Care act made gender rating illegal for health insurance. Federal laws have been introduced to address paid family leave and the “schedules that work” act. And, while they’re difficult to enforce, several states and cities (including California, New York City and Miami) have outlawed the practice of charging different prices for equal services. Hopefully, these changes will ultimately allow women to keep more of their 79 cents per dollar.

Subscribe to The Broadsheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the world’s most powerful women.

This article has been corrected. A previous version misidentified the University of Central Florida study as coming from the University of Florida.

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.

Read More

LeadershipBroadsheetDiversity and InclusionCareersVenture Capital