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    The ‘Pink’ Premium: Why Women in China Still Pay More for Less

    For years, global campaigns have opposed the “pink tax,” where products marketed to women are priced higher than those for men. In China, the debate intensified recently when university students sued cosmetics giant L’Oréal for discriminatory pricing of facial cleansers.

    In a recent quest to buy a new laptop, Han Kexin spent more time searching than buying.

    After hours on e-commerce sites, she found that laptops marketed to women prioritized style over substance. These models offered chic designs but weaker specs like shorter battery life and worse graphics, all at higher prices.

    “Electronic goods are often promoted as masculine, suggesting women are disinterested or lack understanding of technology,” Han, a postgraduate student in Shanghai, tells Sixth Tone. “Brands try to lure women buyers with attractive male celebrities and sleek, colorful laptops in pink or silver hues.”

    Yet pink is more than just a color — it’s a cost. For most women, shopping for gadgets, clothes, or personal care products means paying more for items marketed to them compared to men, often without any additional benefits.

    Prevalent for years across the globe and dubbed the “pink tax,” this practice sparked debate in China recently when a group of university students initiated legal proceedings against cosmetics giant L’Oréal.

    They highlighted a price disparity between gender-specific facial cleansers, with the version for women priced 67 yuan ($9.24) higher despite nearly identical compositions, effects, and volumes compared to its male counterpart.

    Asserting this disparity as discriminatory pricing and a violation of consumer fairness, the students lodged a lawsuit demanding a complete refund. L’Oréal offered a full refund, provided the students agreed not to discuss the case publicly.

    Concerned that this would hinder future consumer rights advocacy, the students refused the deal. Eventually, court mediation led to the withdrawal of the lawsuit and a full refund without any restrictive conditions.

    Despite this legal challenge, the practice remains deeply entrenched in many sectors beyond cosmetics.

    While China lacks explicit regulations against the “pink tax,” and few investigations have been conducted, a 2022 project by Shenzhen University’s School of Media and Communication analyzed over 20,000 product listings on e-commerce platform

    The findings revealed that women’s products, ranging from children’s toys to adult apparel and senior supplies, were often priced higher than similar male-oriented items, despite having no significant differences in core features.

    Xie Libin, a professor at the Sino-German Institute of Law at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, uses pink tax cases in his classes to teach students how to analyze and evaluate unfair treatment. “It is both a gender and consumer rights issue,” he says, adding that current Chinese laws can reduce or eliminate the pink tax if enforced properly. 

    But with little recourse currently, an increasing number of young Chinese are turning to social media to understand and help each other sidestep the pink tax. Online communities share tips and tricks, like comparing prices during major shopping festivals or searching for neutral product descriptions to find better deals.

    Fair trade

    Dai Fu, a law student in Beijing who closely followed the L’Oréal case, recently discovered a simple hack to sidestep the pink tax: shop in the men’s section online.

    While browsing Pinduoduo, the Chinese online retail platform known for offering rock-bottom prices, she found that a plain T-shirt was available in the men’s section for as little as 40 yuan.

    Yet, in the women’s section, the same shirt was sold for over 100 yuan because it was marketed under “JK style” — a popular Japanese street fashion inspired by school uniforms.

    “Since then, I’ve noticed that men’s clothing is generally more comfortable than women’s, and cheaper,” the 20-year-old tells Sixth Tone.

    The disparity is more pronounced with skincare and beauty products. “For women’s products, it seems like businesses add countless unnecessary features, such as multiple skincare steps,” says Dai. “In contrast, products for men emphasize convenience, speed, and affordability.”

    Han finds avoiding the pink tax more challenging. “I may have to dedicate extra effort to carefully selecting products, and even then, I might not always be able to spot the pitfalls of the pink tax on e-commerce platforms,” she rues.

    When searching for sports shorts online, the platform tends to prioritize women’s options based on Han’s shopping history. To sidestep the pink tax, she must compare fabrics meticulously and seek out men’s shorts in the right size. “If every purchasing decision demands this level of time and energy, the time saved could be better spent on more meaningful activities,” she says.

    Han is not alone. On the social platform Douban, over 26,000 members of the “Pink Tax Resisters Alliance” share strategies to avoid the pink tax, discuss gender issues, and organize boycotts against brands that practice gender-based pricing.

    During China’s major shopping festivals, like “618” and “Double Eleven,” the group compares sale prices with regular prices and exchanges tips on improving search keywords. For instance, by searching for terms like “yoga mats men” instead of “yoga mats,” they find cheaper alternatives to products marketed to women.

    Other Douban groups such as the “Don’t Buy It” and the “Frugal Women’s Union,” comprising mostly women from lower-middle-class backgrounds, exchange money-saving tips and offer advice on avoiding consumer pitfalls.

    Chinese consumers have also become more aware of the pink tax through social media influencers. A video from May 2022 on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, discussing the pink tax has garnered over 460,000 likes.

    The video estimated that “women may end up spending an additional 680,000 yuan over their lifetime compared to men,” a staggering figure that sparked heated discussions among viewers and brought the practice to the attention of many netizens for the first time.

    While social networks have been beneficial, Han says they have not effectively disseminated actionable information.

    “They acknowledge the presence of the pink tax without offering steps on how to address it,” she asserts. According to Han, she’s tried to educate her family and friends about the pink tax, but respects their decisions if they show resistance or if conflicts arise.

    “This is not something that people will necessarily embrace just because you try to persuade or pressure them. Aligning knowledge with action can be challenging,” she says.

    Dai concurs. After watching videos related to the pink tax, she often discusses the topic with her friends. However, their conversations usually just focus on complaining about “how could this happen” without delving deeper into the issue. Most participants in such discussions are female students, who simply view it as a social phenomenon.

    “While the power of a single individual may seem insignificant, if people practice rational consumption and resist excessive price markups, they can protect their own rights,” says Dai.

    Toni Yang, a Shanghai-based independent brand consultant for 14 years, explains that brands are increasingly paying attention to criticisms that they excessively exploit female psychology to “create demand” and “manufacture anxiety.”

    She believes that if a brand understands the inner needs of women and transforms this into a positive social impact, consumers might still be willing to pay a slightly higher price.

    “Pricing strategy includes not only all sorts of costs and investments but also brand value and product value. This is why luxury goods have clear production costs but significant markups, yet consumers still buy them,” explains Yang.

    According to her, as sensitivity to gender issues increases, brands are striving to avoid the risks associated with gender topics and to establish deeper connections with their target audiences.

    She says: “Consumers are becoming more diverse, making purchasing decisions based on their identities, values, and needs. Pricing strategies should focus on providing value-added services and experiences tailored to different audience profiles, not gender. After all, an important step towards gender equality is accepting that men can also like pink.”

    Originally from northern China’s Shanxi province and now working in the U.S., Gao Peng encounters similar disparities in her shopping experiences abroad. “Men’s hair removal products are generally $3-4 cheaper than women’s, yet they function the same,” she says.

    Gao underscores that the pink tax isn’t universally recognized among female consumers. “Some women perceive value in paying more, benefiting from beauty privilege, and receiving praise from men for adhering to female stereotypes,” says the 26-year-old.

    She finds the current situation frustrating. She is willing to sign a petition against the pink tax and share her opinions on social media but struggles to find additional ways to support the cause.

    “While many advocate for the elimination of this unjust pricing discrimination, there are always some women who willingly engage in the pink tax,” Gao says. 

    Looking ahead, Dai believes that the pink tax will be difficult to eradicate, since only a minority of women actively voice their concerns.

    In contrast, Yang sees a potential for change. “As consumer groups continue to diversify, the market will naturally eliminate rules that are not adaptable,” she says. “With increasing awareness of gender equality, the phenomenon of the pink tax will gradually fade away as it becomes less viable in the market.”

    Additional reporting: Qi Wenqian; editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: Visuals from VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)