Stir it up

I don't talk about feminism much (the last time I can think of was when I linked in early October to a post defending Sarah Palin from a misogynist attack) , and I should, because feminist issues are important. In particular, it remains somewhat shocking to me when I'm reminded of the different experiences and perceptions men and women have in terms of safety when traveling or walking alone and/or at night, and gender expectations (about sex, division of responsibility within the family, and other things) which presently exist in the U.S. (not just the U.S., of course, but that's where I am and that's the culture I know something about) systematically hurt women more severely and in different ways than they hurt men. Also, the Larry Summers comments about the explanatory role of different gender variances in math and science ability were stupid (read the whole post I'm linking to here, it's better and more interesting than anything I'm going to write. The comments to it are good as well, including the ones which disagree).

Yeah, so with all that throat-clearing about my feminist credentials, obviously I'm about to say something which goes against them.

Complaints that differential pricing of dry cleaning (and haircuts) for men and women are unjust gender discrimination are not well founded and are likely to be wrong. I'm tempted to say something stronger than “not well founded and likely to be wrong” but as a guy addressing an issue where women are bearing additional costs, there's a better than usual chance that I'm not seeing something relevant and am wrong. Here's how I understand this:
1. Some shirts cost dry cleaners more to clean than other shirts (most of what I'm about to say applies to hair by analogy, I'm only going to discuss the dry cleaning case in detail), because of the materials they're made with, being designed to fit different body types (and fit those body types in different ways), and because, as discussed in the N.Y. Times article, the machine most dry cleaners have for pressing shirts is designed with men's shirts in mind.
2. It's not the case that all men's shirts cost more to clean than all women's shirts.
3. It is the case that whether a shirt is a man's or woman's is a good, but imperfect, proxy
* for how much it costs** to clean.
4. Dry-cleaning is a low-margin business, owners of dry-cleaning businesses aren't making much money per unit dry cleaned.
5. In a low-margin situation like this, it could easily cost dry-cleaners enough extra to individually assess items based on the attributes which contribute to cost-of-cleaning, rather than the gender of the person the shirt was made for, that it would eat up all of the potential gains to women who have less costly-to-clean shirts.
6. The are about 80*** dry cleaners on every block in New York, if none of them are actually offering the service of pricing based on difficulty of cleaning in order to better compete with the other 79 dry cleaners on the same block, this might be because such a tactic is not competitively viable.
7. Access to dry-cleaning on equal terms is not a sufficiently important part of people's life-chances that some users whose needs impose lesser costs on the dry-cleaning system should subsidize users whose needs impose greater costs on the dry-cleaning system.

On the other hand, gender based pricing differences are illegal in California, and this law seems to be enforced against dry cleaners. If the dry cleaners there have been able to deal with it easily enough, a lot of my objections fall apart. Does anyone know how dry cleaners structure their pricing in California?

Next post will be a link roundup, probably coming later this evening.

*I'm totally unsympathetic to similar argument in other contexts. For instance, the Virginia Military Institute argued that it shouldn't have to admit women in part because being a woman is a good proxy for not having certain physical capabilities that VMI cared about, even though some women did have those capabilities. VMI didn't have a good argument ; what schools you're able to apply to has more of an impact on your overall life-chances than the costs of dry cleaning or haircuts do, and the increased difficulties in administering a rule which actually tested for the capabilities VMI cared about weren't nearly enough to justify the burden the then current rule imposed.

** There's a possible sub-argument about the relationship between cost and price in a market economy, whether in the presence of perfect competition and extremely low informational costs among consumers, or in reality, but I don't think it ends up being relevant here.