Earlier this week, at an Equal Pay Day press event, President Barack Obama delivered this successful laugh line to an XX-heavy crowd:
“We’ll talk about dry cleaners next, right — (laughter) — because I know that — I don’t know why it costs more for Michelle’s blouse than my shirt.” (Laughter.)
Fair enough. Any gal who has ever walked into a dry cleaner that boasts $1.99 shirts and walked out with a receipt that says she’s paying $5.95 per blouse has probably wondered the same thing.
What divides the meddlesome from the market-minded is how they think about where that differential comes from and what they think should be done about it.
Obama played the dry cleaning gender gap for laughs, of course. He’s not actually launching a ladies’ laundry crusade. But as this Washington Post explainer helpfully points out, there are others who take the issue quite seriously indeed:
“In 1989, a group of George Washington University Law School [students] formed the “Coalition Against Discriminatory Dry Cleaning” and filed complaints with the D.C. Office of Human Rights about unequal pricing at dozens of District dry cleaners. The city soon initiated a formal investigation of all dry cleaners. Two dry cleaning associations and the city brokered a settlement that called for equal prices.”
While there are no federal regulations, there is a 1998 law on the books in New York City that imposes fines for “the public display of discriminatory pricing based on gender.” But even that law makes an exception for services where different amounts of labor are required, such as hair cutting and (you guessed it) some kinds of dry cleaning.
Here’s the thing: Dry cleaners can offer cheap laundering and pressing of men’s dress shirts because men’s clothing is boring and uniform. They use a standard-sized machine to quickly and efficiently remove wrinkles from damp shirts.
But women’s blouses have much more variety in terms of fabric, cut, and construction. Battiston’s, a small Connecticut chain, explains the dry cleaner’s conundrum nicely after offering a strongly worded commitment to gender neutrality when it comes to suits and other garments:
“The one very large asterisk in the realm of gender-neutral pricing, however, is in shirts. Women’s shirts/blouses are often comprised of more elaborate fabrics that . . . should not or simply cannot be laundered and pressed . . .
“Oddly shaped cuts are not going to fit on a shirt press, and thus they will need to be finished by hand. That’s a lot more labor-intensive for a cleaner, and thus the cleaner is going to understandably have a hard time charging the same price. (Remember, the margins on shirt cleaning are very low to begin with, so if you must put significantly more labor into a shirt, then you’re in a losing proposition.) Also, size matters. If a woman’s shirt is too small and you try to put it on a press geared for men’s body types, you run the risk of tearing.”
In other words, the fact that women pay more for clean shirts can be explained, at least in part, as a natural consequence of the fact that women make different personal choices than men. (Sound familiar?)
Battiston’s quotes the official position of its industry association, the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute, on the matter, noting that if particular women’s shirts can be cleaned like men’s shirts, they should be:
“Women should not be charged a higher price simply because they are a woman. If a woman’s shirt can fit on the unit, then it should be finished that way unless she indicates otherwise.”
Women aren’t alone in taking a hit for more diverse style preferences. A male friend reports that he recently received a call from his cleaner explaining that the super-fitted Swedish dress shirts he favors can’t be laundered and pressed for the standard low price. He popped into the shop to check things out and reports that the standard shirt press was indeed “shaped like the fat American everyone dreads getting stuck sitting next to on the plane” and would have been unsuited for his needs.
Some dry cleaners don’t honor this practice and instead charge women more across the board. But the fact that some dry cleaners aren’t offering to put large, square-cut women’s blouses through the standard press isn’t really what’s at issue.
The unthinking assumption that dry cleaners are systematically discriminating against stylish women (and fit gay men) lurks behind Obama’s comments and Banzhaf’s lawsuits. Government meddlers see discrimination for no good reason and set out to correct it.
But policymakers and politicians often know very little about running a business, usually even less about blue collar businesses like dry cleaning. In fact, there’s a perfectly good explanation for the dry cleaning price differential, an industry standard practice of offering equity wherever possible, and a bunch of relevant facts about technology and small business finance that are not immediately obvious to the layman — all of which are too easily swept aside in the rush to regulate equality.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is managing editor of the libertarian journal Reason.