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Gender Pricing

Volume 605: debated on Tuesday 2 February 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered gender pricing.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, for the first Westminster Hall debate I have secured in my own name. Right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House will have noted the research recently conducted by The Times that shows that items marketed at women are, on average, 37% more expensive than similar items marketed at men. It analysed hundreds of products marketed at men and women, and found only one example of a male item priced higher than a female item—boys’ underwear is more expensive than the equivalent for girls—but numerous examples of female items that cost more. Clothes, beauty products and toys for women and girls were found to cost more than the equivalent items marketed at men and boys. Such price differentials were found in some of the UK’s biggest retailers, including Tesco, Boots and Amazon.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Will she join me in welcoming the news that Boots has announced today that it will take action? It is withdrawing two products that it identified are priced in a sexist manner.

Of course I welcome the news that Boots announced today that it will withdraw those items and charge a rate equivalent to that of men’s items. The onus is now on other retailers to do the same.

Some of the examples brought to light by The Times’ research are remarkable. Tesco charges double the price for 10 disposable razors simply because they are pink. In fact, standard razors for women cost, on average, a huge 49% more than the equivalent products for men. At Argos, identical children’s scooters are £5 more expensive in pink than in blue. Bic sells a range of “for her” ballpoint pens that are more expensive than its ordinary range, even though the products are almost entirely identical. Amazon sells a Playmobil pirate ship for £12.59, while the equivalent fairy queen ship, marketed at girls, costs £14.99. According to The Times, neither Amazon nor Playmobil will comment on the rationale behind that price gap.

The Times study follows a similar study conducted by New York City Department of Consumer Affairs in December. It compared nearly 800 products with clear male and female versions from more than 90 brands sold both in-store and online, and found that products for female consumers were more expensive than those for male consumers in all but five of the 35 product categories. Across the sample, the research found that women’s products cost more 42% of the time, whereas men’s products cost more just 18% of the time. The DCA report remarked:

“Over the course of a woman’s life, the financial impact of these gender-based pricing disparities is significant.”

In 1994, the state of California studied the issue of the gender-based pricing of services. It estimated that women effectively pay an annual gender tax of approximately $1,351 for the same services as men.

The Government must ensure that an independent analysis is conducted to identify the extent of unfair gender pricing and marketing practices in the UK. The full impact of gender differentials in pricing on women must be quantified. Women may pay thousands of pounds more over their lives to purchase similar products to men. Will the Minister commit to conducting such an analysis?

It could be argued that some products for women have additional design and performance features, and that others are priced individually based on factors including formulation, ingredients and market comparison. Of course, a women’s jumper might be made with better-quality fabric, and a men’s jumper might be made with cheaper material, but The Times’ study indicates that that is often not the case. Frequently, the only difference between the two products is the colour.

In 2012, Development Economics conducted research on gender-based pricing on behalf of the insurance provider Aviva. It found that women pay an average of £200 more per year than men for essentially the same consumer goods and services. The only difference is that the products are specifically designed for and targeted at the female market.

Does the hon. Lady agree that many women do not have the time to go around shops comparing and contrasting prices? This smacks of retailers taking women for granted.

I absolutely agree. There is a sense that exploitation is going on. It is fantastic that we are able to use this debate to bring these issues to the fore.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her very fine presentation, her compelling argument and the research she has done. Does she agree that for many women, particularly those on low incomes and those who depend on benefits, it is difficult to purchase the more expensive gender-based products?

Once again, I completely agree.

If there is no discernible difference or advantage to purchasing a product designed for women, but the consumer is led to believe that there is, we must ask questions about advertising standards and whether consumers are able to make properly informed choices. What is it about a multipack “for her” ballpoint pen that makes it more custom-fit or specially designed for a woman? If female consumers are told that they should purchase a specific product because it is the only version suitable for women, when in fact there is no discernible difference in the product, it can be argued that they are being misled.

This debate raises concerns about the kind of choices and information available to female consumers when they make purchases and whether discriminatory practices are taking place, but we should also consider the worrying pattern of gender economic inequality under the Government. The UK gender pay gap currently stands at 19.2%—well above the EU average. Low pay and poor employment practices persist in sectors in which women are the majority of employees, including the care, retail and hospitality sectors. Analysis by the TUC found that more than half of the job growth for women since 2010 has been in low-paying sectors, and that 29% of women earn less than the living wage, compared with 18% of male workers. Women are paid less and are expected to spend more on products and services. They are charged more simply for being women.

Will the Minister agree to Labour’s calls for a cumulative gender impact analysis of the Government’s policies since 2010? If the Government will not do anything to tackle intrinsic gender economic inequality, they must at least not make matters worse. The recently published research raises numerous issues about consumer rights, fair advertising and gender economic inequality. Women are paid less but are expected to spend more on products that are often not discernibly different to the equivalent products for men.

In the absence of a Government gender equality strategy, I ask the Minister to respond to the following questions. Will the Government ensure that independent analysis and further study is conducted to identify the extent of unfair gender pricing and marketing practices in the UK? Will they seek to quantify the full cumulative impact of gender differentials in pricing for women? Will they meet the UK’s major retailers to identify what steps they are taking to rectify the situation?

Once again, I welcome the news that Boots has taken steps this afternoon to change some of its pricing, but I have just received an email from Tesco suggesting that its pink razors are significantly more expensive than the blue or black versions because they are produced in smaller quantities. I struggle to see how that justifies the extra cost. We need to meet retailers and have that discussion.

How will the Government discern whether gender pricing differentials amount to discriminatory practice? Will they produce a cumulative impact analysis of their policies on women since 2010 to understand the true extent of gender economic inequality in the UK?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir Edward. I commend the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) for securing this timely debate. We should all be thanking The Times for its investigative skills in uncovering yet another form of sex discrimination that was, frankly, hiding in plain sight: the pricing of similar or the same products. Many women were clearly unaware that stores charge different prices for the same product depending on whether it is marketed at men or at women, and many people find this quite surprising. On a closer look, one can find similar research from France and in the United States. It is surprising that people experience such price differentials not only in the UK, or perhaps we should not be surprised because the manufacturers and retailers mentioned could well be those that have fallen foul of the research done elsewhere, France in particular.

When the report was published by The Times some 10 days ago, the Women and Equalities Committee, which includes my friend the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), happened to be meeting that day, and we immediately deemed it appropriate for the Committee to undertake a short investigation into the findings of this piece of journalism. We have written to several of the manufacturers and retailers cited in the report to ask for the rationale behind why they differentiate their pricing in this way. They could find themselves well out of step with their customers following the exposure of the findings, because there cannot be many customers who visit our supermarkets and expect exactly the same product, whether a razor or any other of the vast range of products put under the microscope, to be charged at a discount to men and a surcharge to women.

Having spent almost 20 years in advertising and marketing before I came to this place, I know first-hand that marketing departments and retail outlets are making such choices. It is not happenstance or a mistake; a conscious choice is being made to price the same products differently depending on whether it is expected to be bought by a man or a women. I cannot understand why that would be the case. Retailers and manufacturers need to explain themselves clearly and quickly. I do not think that the Government should get involved in this issue, because customers ultimately vote with their feet. If such organisations cannot explain themselves clearly enough, that is exactly what customers will do.

I welcome the swift action that Boots has taken in making right the pricing on two products that were part of The Times’ research, and I think it is undertaking to look further at the matter, which shows real responsiveness. I thank Tesco for the email I received a few moments ago, which, as the hon. Member for Dewsbury said, did try to explain its product pricing. That is the start of a conversation and certainly not the end of one.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this presents a great opportunity for retailers to get off the sidelines and play their full part in the battle for gender balance and fairness?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Gender stereotyping helps no one. It does not help women or men. As we go forward, people will be calling for a reduction in gender stereotyping and far more gender-neutral approaches to the products and services that they purchase.

I again commend the hon. Member for Dewsbury for securing today’s debate. I hope that she follows the work of the Women and Equalities Committee as we consider the evidence that we receive and decide what to do next. We may even invite some retailers and manufacturers to give oral evidence if we feel that there are further questions to ask. I thank her for her support in an important area of work for women’s equality.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and an honour to follow the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who served with distinction as Minister for Women and Equalities. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) on securing this important debate. She made her name with the tampon tax, which made waves even if it did not quite get legislative change, so let us hope that such change will result from today’s debate.

I agree with everything that has been said. This is an example of everyday sexism. As my hon. Friend pointed out, it hits from babyhood to old age. There are so many examples. It is a great hidden gender swindle perpetrated by the retail trade, which has spotted an opportunity that many of us do not notice because someone would have to be quite diligent to do the comparison every time.

In 2016, we have been led to believe that gender barriers are dissolving and eroding in many areas, but there are examples of price differentials from toys to toiletries and even in clothing. A white T-shirt for a man in Tesco’s F&F range costs a lot less than the woman’s equivalent. It just seems wrong that products for her are much higher priced than the equivalent for him. The Times’ research found that the differential can sometimes be 37%, which is quite a lot, and the total cost of that can rack up over a woman’s life, and yet it happens without anyone noticing.

There was a disagreement over whether tampons and sanitary products were luxury items. This is not about those Yorkie bar wrappers saying, “It’s not for girls!”, which make my blood pressure rise—I am off Yorkies now. The issue will never be one of those things that is emotive in the same way as “Made In Dagenham” and the Equal Pay Act 1970 or the suffragettes, about whom a film was also made recently, because it happens without our noticing. It is not totemic in the same way. When shopping, the relationship is usually between value and quality, but here it has been subverted by gendered commodities. It seems strange to have two different versions of a product. Surely a razor is a razor and a pen is a pen, no matter the gender of who uses it. At Boots—I think—eight women’s razors cost £2.29, but it is £1.49 for 10 men’s razors. It makes no sense at all. If it is true that Boots has bowed to pressure, that is good news.

The campaigning has been thoroughly modern. The Fawcett Society started a petition that was spearheaded by Stevie Wise of Middlesex University and gathered some 35,000 signatures. This has happened a few times on women and equality issues recently. A constituent of mine ran a petition that achieved nearly 4,000 signatures, protesting that none of the 70 composers on the A-level music syllabus were women, and there has now been movement on that. When the new draft regulations for A-level politics come out, I think we will see that feminism has been reinstated in some form. The petition for that received nearly 50,000 signatures. It is a thoroughly modern, bottom-up way of campaigning that has led to Boots caving in. I said that I would be brief, but I just want to agree and commend my hon. Friend for her initiative. There are things that can be done.

Counterintuitively, in America, capitalist land of the free, they are more progressive than we are. The New York research that was mentioned earlier led to retailers sitting down around the table. We should be doing the same, including with Amazon and other online retailers, even if we think that their tax arrangements are a bit too friendly and they seem to be able to pay what they want. In fact, in New York they have rent control as well. I know that that is not pertinent to the subject of the debate, but on some of these issues, counterintuitively, the Americans have got it right. Surely we can catch up.

I hope that the Minister will have some good news. We thought that progress was being made on women’s equality. After all, at Prime Minister’s questions at the end of last year, the Prime Minister declared to me across the Dispatch Box that he is now a feminist. He needs to put his money where his mouth is and do something, because it seems like women are viewed as cash cows. One might say that we can vote with our wallets, but, as the right hon. Member for Basingstoke said, how many people are really going to make the comparison all the time? It happens beneath the radar. It often seems like we are sleepwalking into discrimination. We have anti-discriminatory legislation in this country—introduced by Labour Governments—so this rip-off needs to stop.

It is quite interesting that you say that, Sir Edward. I thank the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) for securing this debate on a subject that is very close to my heart. It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I apologise for the gender imbalance today. I think we are outnumbered 8:2, which is never a problem for me—I thoroughly enjoy being outnumbered by women.

As a hairdresser, barber and salon owner, I worked for most of my adult life in a sector with universally accepted gender pricing inequalities. A haircut for a man with short hair could cost 40% less than one for a woman with short hair. An average women’s haircut in London is 97% more expensive than the average men’s haircut. That difference in average prices caused a lot of debates and arguments—most of them humorous—in my own salons over the years, especially when a man, a wife, a daughter and a son were sitting together, because I had to do some very quick mental calculations to show how I had thought things out thoroughly. I can assure Members that it caused an awful lot of problems, and still does.

The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) mentioned New York. It is interesting to note that New York addressed gender-differentiated prices. Salons were nudged into harmonising their prices. It has worked for most of them, and there are some great examples. Unfortunately, it can work the wrong way, as when a men’s haircut went from $10 to $75. It was similar to the difference between the price of a cup of tea in one railway station and another: the prices will never come down; they always go up. There are some cases, particularly in my profession, of a legitimate business need for gender pricing, but the fact is that society is not generally aware of gender pricing inequality, which is of great concern.

We are teaching our daughters, and thereby perpetuating the myth, that being a woman is be more expensive. It is our duty and responsibility as MPs to consider what we could and should do to address such inequality. The example I gave of haircuts is relatively frivolous, but I picked it because it exemplifies the wider social issue: our general acceptance that it is more expensive to be a woman.

As I said in my speech in yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate on state pension age inequality, the UK Government’s fiscal programme and determination to push through austerity measures has affected women disproportionately. Coupled with a failure to do anything about the gender pay gap and gender pricing, we are left with what is essentially a triple charge on being a woman.

I am proud to be a member of the Scottish National party, as is, I am sure, my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley). We are committed in Scotland to the cause of gender equality. The SNP is the only party that is committed to the removal of VAT on female sanitary products—it is in our manifesto.

Recent reports have shown, again, that women pay more than men for nearly identical items in nearly every demographic from childhood to old age. I have a son and a daughter. They are older now, but over the years I have noticed the differences between the prices of something for a boy and something for a girl. Christmas presents were always difficult as I tried to spend the same amount of money on my daughter and my son but, generally speaking, my girl’s presents were always far more expensive than my son’s.

On average, products marketed at women are 37% more expensive than their male equivalents—from razors to cologne to children’s toys and clothing. Hundreds of products are priced higher for women. In the 21st century, when we strive to be a progressive, tolerant and accepting society, that is not something that should be ignored or accepted. There should be no premium on being a woman. It is for that reason that I am keen to hear the findings of the Women and Equalities Committee’s investigation into price discrimination if and when it is launched.

I suspect that the findings of any investigation will be self-evident. Retailers charge more for feminine products and services because they can. They charge as much as the customer is willing to pay. However, retailers have a corporate responsibility to treat women and men using similar products and merchandise equally. I hope that some of our large retailers take the lead on this, similar to the lead taken by Boots and similar to the lead taken by John Lewis and Waitrose in reducing the sugar content in their food and drink products.

Let the Government and the Select Committee forgo this political navel-gazing. If the architects of choice—the retailers—do not take the lead, the behavioural insights team employed by the Prime Minister should guide the Government to do the proper thing and take action to legislate against gender-differentiated prices of goods and services. Marketing and commerce can be deeply discriminatory. We must work to build a society in which women are not treated as overcharged second-class citizens. I urge the Government to address the issue of gender pricing and the wider issues surrounding gender inequality.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) on securing the debate. This debate is welcome because, surprisingly, it is the first debate on the topic in any Chamber of this House. However, I suspect that if men were paying the premiums that women are, there would be outrage on the Floor of both Houses, and in boardrooms, and perhaps action would have been taken before now. In fact, one of the primary arguments for why we should have more women represented in our Parliament and in our boardrooms is so we can ensure that someone is taking serious action.

The reality is that the gendering of products starts at an early age—pink for girls and blue for boys—and continues throughout our lifetimes. It includes everyday items such as perfumes, deodorants, razors and shaving cream, but it does not stop there. Studies suggest that women pay more for mortgages, insurance premiums and even cars.

I welcome the points raised by other hon. Members. The hon. Member for Dewsbury rightly pointed out that women pay 37% more than men for the same products, which seems ludicrous, yet it is a reality that has an impact on the incomes of women on low pay. The fact that 25% of women earn less than £10,000 a year should be a stark reminder to us that this is something that we should tackle in this House. Although it is the responsibility of retailers, we in Parliament and those in the Government have a responsibility to put pressure on retailers to take serious action.

Does the hon. Lady share my concern at the fact that just 9% of executive positions in big businesses in Britain are held by women? Does she think that, in some way, that may be part of the reason that these issues are not taken more seriously at a board level?

Absolutely. It is something that we have looked at closely in the Women and Equalities Committee. Across Parliaments—in Scotland and the UK—action needs to be taken. There is only so much that Governments can do but we need all companies of all sizes to take serious action to ensure that women are represented at every level of the organisation, and not just to have boardrooms full of men. I suspect that that is a large part of why we find ourselves having this debate.

I welcome the fact that Boots has withdrawn two of its lines, and I think Argos recently conceded that a pink scooter had to be repriced on the basis of the price of a blue scooter, but it seems ridiculous that we should have to point out such things and make such comments in a modern-day society.

Gender stereotyping does exist. The fact that I can plainly state that pink is for girls and blue is for boys is absolutely ridiculous. In a society where many people identify as non-binary or do not identify in clear gender stereotypes, why should we have products catering to that market? As the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) has previously pointed out, the reality is that this is marketing and it is what people are paying for. Unless we raise awareness of the issue, there will continue to be higher prices for products.

The Government can take action in one regard, in that female sanitary products are subject to VAT and are considered a luxury. Unlike Jaffa Cakes, sanitary products are not a luxury.

I was very proud to table the amendment in the House last year calling for the Government to attempt to renegotiate the rate of VAT on feminine hygiene products. We welcome their attempts to do that, but does the hon. Lady agree that we must see that they are putting this on an equal footing with their other EU negotiations and that they are not treating women as second-class citizens in this regard?

Absolutely. The hon. Lady is a mind reader. My point is that sanitary products are not luxuries. Although I appreciate the difficulties that block the way to change with regard to EU legislation, I am sure that the Government can and must do more. Perhaps while the Prime Minister is renegotiating our position in the EU he could pay some attention to the gender inequalities that exist as well.

The regulation that appears to restrict us from removing the tampon tax has been in place since the 1970s, so this is not a new subject and it is surprising to me that it is only now coming to the fore. Issues such as the use or misuse of the terms “swarms” or “migrants” have become topical in discussions on the EU and yet, the topic of a tax on women has not been a serious issue for the Prime Minister to address, so I hope the Government will do so.

I thank the hon. Lady for picking that point up, and I am delighted that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Gauke), has already started to have these sorts of discussions. I commend him particularly for taking such a strong stand on this issue, and I am sure all our good wishes will be with him to achieve a successful negotiation.

Absolutely, I think it is in everyone’s interest that there is a successful negotiation. I am only sorry that it has taken so long for this conversation to happen at all, to be perfectly honest.

As has been cited, research conducted by the Fawcett Society indicates that 85% of the cuts have come at the expense of women. Whether we are talking about the welfare cap or cuts to carer’s allowance, women have borne the brunt of the austerity measures imposed by this Government. I say that not to politicise the issue, but simply to make the point that women are paying more than men for some decisions that are taken. The measures that require women to prove that they have been raped are also an abhorrent policy and something that must be addressed quickly and urgently.

The Government have forgotten women on many occasions, and although many actions have been taken by members of the Government to address those points, whether this is about gender pricing or gender-specific policies, we must do more to eradicate the inequalities that exist between men and women. We must do that, so that one day a little girl will not end up earning less than her brother, so that one day our sons and daughters will be equal, and so that one day a person’s gender will not determine how much pay they take home.

In conclusion, although I appreciate that it is the responsibility of retailers to take a lead and to continue to urge all Governments to tackle this issue, serious inequalities do exist between men and women, and I would like to hear what actions the Government plan to take to tackle gender inequality. Beyond rhetoric, there must be action.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. This is the first time I have responded from the Front Bench and I am very grateful for the opportunity to do so.

I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) for securing the debate and for her eloquent and insightful comments. I also thank everyone from all parts of the House—the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), the hon. Members for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) and the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) —who have all contributed to the debate. This is an important, principled debate, and it should not be a party political issue. I congratulate The Times journalists on reporting on this issue and bringing it to the forefront of public and mainstream media attention. Their calculation that gendered products marketed at women are 37% more expensive than their male counterparts reflects a wider reality of how women are expected to engage with the high street.

Women are expected to spend more on their personal hygiene, appearance and presentation than men, which is often reflected in advertising and the everyday pressures that we put on women from a young age to look and dress in a certain way. The overcharging of women for products on the high street is symptomatic of the way in which, more broadly, our economy makes women pay. Women are hit the hardest by austerity, and tampons are taxed as luxury goods.

Our domestic violence rescue services have suffered enormously over the past five years. Ironically, funds were only injected in the spending review through the tampon tax. Like grievances against the tampon tax, this debate is grounded in a principled belief that people should not pay more for products that, beyond the packaging, are identical. High street retailers should not exploit female-marked products in that way. To borrow the title of an article in The Guardian on this issue, women are overcharged every day. Imagine if that happened to men.

I applaud the work of campaigns such as “Let Toys Be Toys” that fight against unnecessarily gendered products. Gendered products on the high street are not only harmful to women in terms of pricing but often impose unnecessary gender stereotypes on to products. The Government must ensure that there is independent analysis to identify the extent of unfair gender pricing and marketing practices in the UK. The full impact of gender differentials in pricing on women must be qualified. I call upon the Government also to look at the United States and the action taken in New York and California to see what more can be done to eliminate unfair practices. Legislation has been passed in those two states to outlaw gendered pricing. An encouraging statement was released by Boots today saying that, following a petition, it has conducted a review and will be taking immediate action to amend the pricing of certain products.

I finish by expressing support for those who have campaigned on this issue, and I would welcome a meeting on this issue with the Minister and leading retailers in Parliament.

It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Sir Edward. I welcome the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) to her place—I look forward to working opposite her. I add my voice to those congratulating the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) on securing this important debate and on all her hard work and effort. This is a fundamental issue, and I have listened to all today’s contributions with enormous interest.

This is not a straightforward issue. It seems like a case of simple, unacceptable injustice, but the closer we get, the more complex it is. Many people here, and others in the press, have raised interesting and important points about the way that pricing structures can exploit women. The general public have also been active partners in this debate, and rightly so. They are asking whether there is a tax on womanhood in the British high street. I am pleased to hear from my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) that the Women and Equalities Committee will be considering this important issue. She has had to leave, but she and her Committee will display their normal tenacity and insightfulness.

I will first respond to the hon. Member for Dewsbury by explaining that this position is tricky because it slips between equality and consumer law, and I will then set out the more general implications for gender equality. The Equality Act 2010 provides that a retailer must not discriminate against a customer, either by failing to provide goods or services or by providing them on different terms, on the basis of someone’s gender. In the cases described in the research that we are discussing, retailers are not refusing to sell goods to female customers; in fact, I am sure that they are only too pleased to sell them, because they make more money doing it that way. Retailers are not applying discounts for men that they are not applying for women. We are all equally able to buy the same products. It is just that the ones marketed at women seem to be inexcusably higher in price. Goods and services that are in the high street can be bought by either sex at the same price, regardless of whom they are designed or marketed for. As long as the treatment is the same for both sexes, we are within the realms of equality law.

With very few exceptions, we do not operate price controls in the UK, and businesses are generally free to set their own prices on the goods that they sell to consumers. It is of course fundamental that businesses listen to their customers and any concerns that they have about pricing. It is very good news, and not a little ironic, that we are now beginning to hear from some of the major retailers that that is indeed what they are doing today. Responsibility for ensuring that markets operate competitively falls to the Competition and Markets Authority. Complaints of market failure need to be addressed to the CMA. I will be speaking to the CMA about this issue and I encourage everyone who has any evidence of this behaviour to do so, too.

There have been calls today for the Government to conduct an independent analysis of gender pricing. I am listening to those calls very carefully. It is important to understand that consumers are a very important priority for the Government. We need to have confident and well-informed consumers, because that drives effective markets and the UK economy. Only last October, the Consumer Rights Act 2015 came into force. It sets out a simple, modern framework of consumer rights. Consumers are also protected by the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, which ban traders from engaging in unfair commercial practices against consumers—for example, giving them false or deceptive information or descriptions of products, or misleading them by leaving out important information that they need to help to make a purchasing decision.

What about the role of advertising that exploits gender stereotypes? Product advertising is controlled primarily by self-regulation. The Advertising Standards Authority has responsibility for ensuring compliance with “The British Code of Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing”. The code is a body of rules by which the advertising industry agrees to abide. It requires all forms of advertising to be legal, decent, honest and truthful and prepared with a sense of responsibility to both consumer and society. The ASA says that it is happy to look into consumers’ concerns, and again I encourage anyone who feels concerned about the way products are advertised to speak to it.

When it comes to the law, it is important to consider whether we are talking about selling the same product at a higher price, or similar products aimed at different markets. If it is the latter, no laws are broken, yet it is absolutely valid to feel concerned at what is happening. Some people are asking: are manufacturers and retailers exploiting gender stereotypes to make women feel inadequate unless they pay a premium for products that implicitly or explicitly suggest that they are “for them”? That is the crux of the matter. Personally, I have a slight aversion to pink products that are specifically designed for ladies—maybe I am just a bit contrary like that.

The hon. Member for Dewsbury, who initiated this very important debate, has already given a number of examples of gendered marketing from recent years. Some of those have been largely met with ridicule. I do not know whether any hon. Members remember the stream of online reviews when a certain ballpoint pen manufacturer manufactured a lady’s version, in pastel shades. Hundreds of women went online to express their heartfelt gratitude. One said:

“My husband has never allowed me to write, as he doesn’t want me touching men’s pens…Once I had learnt to write, the feminine colour and the grip size (which was more suited to my delicate little hands)…enabled me to vent thoughts about new recipe ideas, sewing and gardening.”

I am sure that we can all sympathise with that. Men joined in with complaints that the delicate pens were too slippery for fingers calloused from a hard day’s shark wrestling, and that they hated the visions of fairies and rainbows that they got whenever they used those pens.

I have seen, as I am sure we all have, special women’s Sellotape, dental floss, earplugs, energy drinks and even blenders, as well as the women’s haircuts highlighted by the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally). A personal favourite of mine is the men’s and women’s versions of unperfumed deodorant—because people might guess—and let us not forget that old favourite, man-sized tissues for man-sized noses.

However, there is a serious side to the issue, as hon. Members from all parties have pointed out. It is absolutely right that we empower consumers to ask whether there is a clear difference in the products and production costs, or whether the manufacturers believe that women can be persuaded to pay more than men. Consumers are within their rights to ask retailers to explain why. Why might a pair of women’s jeans cost more than men’s? Is it due to a larger range of different fits, lengths, colours, types of stitching and qualities of denim, or is it just that they are particularly marketed towards women?

I recently had a constructive meeting with the chief executive of the British Retail Consortium. She informed me that although the consortium is keeping a lookout for the issue, it has not been raised by BRC members. Helpfully, though, a number of retailers have contacted my office within the last few hours to discuss the matter. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke and others correctly pointed out, Boots today corrected the price of disposable razors and eye roll-ons, Sir Edward, so we will be paying the same price for those in future.

Well, you might now. It seems that the power of the female consumer’s voice, once it is brought to public debates such as this, is starting to be heard. We encourage that, of course, and we encourage other retailers to take note. We heard from the British Retail Consortium that non-food prices have fallen continuously for the past 33 months, and that that may be in part because consumers are more informed than ever before. Long may that continue.

Another serious issue is the impact on children, which the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) mentioned. I know from my postbag that many parents are concerned about the impact of gendered marketing on children, which is compounded if, as we are discovering, there is a price differential too. Children learn through play, so it is important that they have access to a wide range of toys and interests, whatever their gender. So what if boys want to wear pink and girls want to play with train sets? At least, as we heard a couple of weeks ago, Barbie has finally put on a few pounds. That is something to make us all feel a bit better. That is why the Government are committed to supporting parents and teachers in raising the next generation of informed consumers by developing media literacy and resilience to restrictive stereotypes.

Perhaps if we removed gender from children’s toys, we might find that young boys and girls could aspire to whatever careers they chose. It might have a large role to play in that as well.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Only last week, I was at an event geared towards getting girls into science, technology, engineering and maths. Those sorts of initiative are so important. In order to correct the gender pay gap, which we have discussed, we need women to aim for those higher-paid careers.

The hon. Lady also raised the point that if we could get more women on boards, gender discriminatory decisions might not be made. I am pleased to say that we have made enormous progress on that under Lord Davies; the 25% target for women on boards of FTSE 100 companies has now been met, although we agree that more needs to be done to improve the executive pipeline. At the moment, less than 10% of people in the FTSE 100 executive pipeline are women. We have accepted his recommendations to establish a new review focusing on the executive layer of FTSE 350 companies. That is important to ensuring that the retail issues change.

I do not want to make a massive party political point out of this, but I gently say to the hon. Ladies who have spoken about how cuts have hit women hardest that a record number of women are in employment. We all want to see women in higher-paid employment, but that record number is a good thing. The female participation rate has increased by more since 2010 than it did during the previous three Parliaments combined. Women’s salaries are rising in cash terms. We are cutting tax for nearly 13 million women by 2017-18 and the gender pay gap is at its lowest level. No one should think I am in any way complacent about that. I know that there is still more to do, but we are dedicated to that.

As the Minister for Women and Equalities and Family Justice, I am happy to keep a very close eye on the issue raised today, but I fundamentally feel that is up to us all as intelligent, questioning consumers to demand an explanation from retailers and manufacturers for the different prices, if we have questions or concerns. Actions speak so much louder than words. While women’s voices must unite on this issue, it is even more powerful if women speak with the power of our purses. As a result of the growing debate on this issue, I know that more women will understand that they do not have to buy pink razors. The blue ones are just as good, and men are of course welcome to try the pink ones out if they wish, Sir Edward. I know that if the tables were turned, men would be proudly choosing pink earplugs if they realised that they cost a third less.

Thank you, Sir Edward. I will sum up briefly. I thank all the contributors to today’s debate. It was refreshing to hear the spirit in which the debate was entered into, and to have representatives from four political parties. I pay special tribute to the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally), who has joined us this afternoon.

The Women and Equalities Committee has a significant role to play in this issue going forward, and I welcome its investigation. I completely agree with the Minister that retailers have some questions to answer, but equally, the Government have a role to play, and I urge her to consider the analysis on the cumulative impact on women.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) made a powerful point about people power. We have seen that this afternoon, with the response from Boots. The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) made a powerful point about the need for more women MPs. The number is going up, but it is not nearly enough. I am proud to belong to a party that practises positive discrimination for women with all-women shortlists. Equally, there need to be more women on boards. I acknowledge the progress that has been made, but until we reach 50%, I will continue to champion the cause.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) for her contribution. She made a valid point on advertising and the pressure on women to look and behave a certain way. I agree that we could definitely learn from some of the research that has been undertaken in America. Like many others, I will be watching the issue carefully. I hope that I can contribute going forward by speaking to retailers. Let us see some positive difference in this area.

Thank you to all those who have taken part in a most interesting debate. It was certainly an eye-opener for me.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered gender pricing.

Sitting adjourned.