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20 July 2022

How inflation is worse for women

Prices are rising faster for items aimed at women, who tend to be poorer already.

By Alona Ferber, Katharine Swindells and Ben van der Merwe

This morning (20 July) the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has updated the inflation rate to 9.4 per cent for June, from 9.1 per cent in May. Steeply rising prices are not felt equally, however, and families in financial hardship are already finding that they have no disposable income after paying their monthly bills.

That the cost-of-living crisis is forcing poorer people to make hard choices might seem obvious – unless, perhaps, you are a Conservative leadership candidate. Less obvious, however, are the ways in which rising prices disproportionately affect women.

Figures from the ONS for the year up to June 2022 show that items marketed at women have tended to rise in price by more than those aimed at men. Some price rises have been similar. For instance, an average man or woman’s plain T-shirt rose by 33 and 27 per cent respectively in the year. Women’s formal shoes, however, have on average gone up five times as much – by 75 per cent – as men’s, which have gone up by 14 per cent. And while women’s blouses have risen by 29 per cent, there was a 6 per cent drop in men’s shirts.

This difference “reflects the ‘pink tax’ on women’s consumer goods”, says Johnna Montgomerie, professor of international political economy at King’s College London – a reference to the fact that products marketed at women usually cost more than products aimed at men. “The price will go up for products the market knows women will sacrifice elsewhere to get,” she says.

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The “pink tax” is evident beyond clothing, too. While electric razors, chiefly used by men, have dropped in price by 6 per cent, electric hair styling appliances, chiefly used by women, have gone up by 32 per cent.

Women are held to higher standards of grooming and beauty than men, which affects demand and therefore prices. It is a question of “what retailers can get away with”, says Dr Sara Reis, deputy director of the Women’s Budget Group. “There is higher pressure on women to look good in order to appear professional, and so there may be less withdrawing of demand on women’s clothes and the beauty market even when prices go up.”

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Montgomerie puts it in even blunter terms. Overall, prices are increasing because the cost of making and transporting cheap consumer goods has risen since the pandemic, which disrupted labour forces and supply chains. But companies that charge higher prices for women’s products are acting, she says, out of “institutionalised misogyny”.

“Their market research says that women will pay more for products they deem essential, so they charge more to increase revenue. This calculation is used as a kind of business moralism that is really just sex discrimination in which the very physical features of being female become monetised into corporate gain.”

The data on prices for low-cost products tells a similar story. Cheaper items marketed at women have had higher price increases than more expensive ones. From June 2021 to June 2022, high-end tampon brands have increased in price by 2 per cent while low-end brands have risen by 11 per cent.

Cheaper versions of products such as hair dye, blouses or bras, including supermarket own-brand lines, have also been rising at higher rates that the more expensive versions, the ONS data shows. This affects women disproportionately, too. Women tend to be poorer; the vast majority of single parents are women, for example. Women are also the majority consumers of household goods. Shopping is often the “unpaid labour” of women, says Montgomerie, so if finding affordable products becomes harder that means “additional unpaid work… to cope with rising prices”.

What we are seeing is “is typical of economic crises”, says Reis. “On top of this worse economic position, women also tend to be the shock absorbers of poverty in their families, going without food, clothing or heating to ensure others – especially their children – don’t. They also tend to be the ones who budget in low-income families, so the cost-of-living crisis is also having an impact on women’s stress and mental health.”

Inflation is worsening fear and anxiety over the cost of period products, a necessity for menstruating women and girls. A number of recent surveys have shown the extent of the problem. According to research by Plan International, for instance, one in five girls and women up to the age of 21 in the UK has not been able to afford period products at some point since the start of this year.

Half of those who struggled said they cut back on groceries to buy them. Fifty-five per cent and 56 per cent respectively said they were concerned they would not be able to access period products because of the rising cost of electricity and food.

The extent of period poverty in one of the richest countries in the world is “a scandal”, says Reis. It points to the fact that the current crisis is “an income crisis, and we know that young women earn less than young men and have higher levels of personal debt”.

One of the reasons for that wage gap is, of course, the prohibitive cost of childcare in this country – it is the third-most expensive in the developed world. This problem long predates the inflation crisis; recent analysis by the Trades Union Congress found that nursery fees for under twos went up 44 per cent from 2010 to 2021. Since 2021 they have gone up by 4.1 per cent, according to the charity Coram Family and Childcare.

Men also pay for childcare, of course, but women tend to be the ones who stay home in heterosexual couples that can’t afford to pay for it. And, as mentioned above, they also make up the majority of single parents, and they are more likely to be poor. Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that 49 per cent of children in single-parent families were in poverty in 2019-20, compared with 25 per cent in two-parent families.

Expensive childcare has all sorts of unintended consequences. In a survey the New Statesman conducted this year 70 per cent of respondents said childcare costs were a significant reason that mothers chose to be stay-at-home parents. Another poll by Pregnant then Screwed, a lobbying group, found that 60 per cent of women who had an abortion said the cost of childcare influenced their decision.

Reis says: “The government’s refusal to substantively review how the UK’s childcare system works, and to fund it properly, is an illustrative example of this government’s blindness when it comes to the disproportionate impact of the cost-of-living and income crisis on women.”

[See also: Is Brexit to blame for the UK's rising inflation?]