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Are Markets Sexist?


After years of abuse, the term “sexism” has become subjective to the point where it can be misconstrued in a variety of ways. In some cases, we’ve been told that sexism is being made worse by markets as producers of goods and services make sexist products or charge women more for products than they charge men for the same products. Common manifestations of this problem, we are told, include the gender wage gap, the “pink” tax, and sexualization in media.

But are any of these issues the fault of the markets? Or are they just giving customers what they want?

The Gender Wage Gap

The wage gap between men and women is probably the most cited example of sexism. This idea that women with comparable experience and education seem to earn about 20 percent less than men for similar occupations has been disputed due to aggregate errors. These errors were fueled by using median wages of men and women as a whole, not by profession.

Further evidence shows that the wage gap is actually better explained by the fact that women make different career decisions than men. Women tend to value more family time and benefits that provide security compared to men. This does not show gender discrimination but rather preference differences.

The Pink Tax

The “pink” tax, or a higher price of goods catered towards women, is another example feminists use as evidence of sexism. The idea is that for products with similar chemical make-ups, ones that catered to women rather than men are on average more expensive. An example of this “pink” tax is Neutrogena’s face moisturizers containing similar ingredients for the men and women versions where the latter is relatively more expensive.

Similar to the pay-gap critique, an explanation for the difference in prices is due to greater differentiation in products as women value ample choices for their personal needs. In order to offer greater options, such as the array of deodorant scents and types that women desire, the costs of meeting more customer preferences are greater than the relatively few choices that men have signaled to producers. Most importantly, we must note that these products would not be brought to market at all if women were not willing to pay more for them. If the more expensive female-oriented products were truly the same as the male-oriented products, women would simply buy the male products instead.

Portrayals of Women in Media 

In claiming that markets increase and perpetuate sexism, some claim that markets force an oversexualized image of women on consumers.

Empirical studies do suggest that women are indeed portrayed differently in media products than men. In one study, Drs. Erin Hatton and Mary Nell Trautner at the University of Buffalo  examined Rolling Stone magazine, concluding that “there were 10 times more hypersexualized images of women than men, and 11 times more non-sexualized images of men than of women.”

The question we are left with, therefore, is this: why do producers of media include this mix of images in their products? Is it because of sexism on the part of the media producers, or is it in response to what consumers signal they want?

It appears likely that this sort of imagery remains popular among consumers, including both men and women. The blockbuster film Wonder Woman, for example, depicted a strong, powerful female character, but nevertheless featured her as physically attractive and dressed in an arguably provocative superhero costume. Male and female audiences alike helped the film become highly profitable.

At the same time, markets have served as a conduit to deliver blows against firms that are seen as promoting products that perpetuate this style of sexism. These include numerous media and ad campaigns designed to combat reputedly sexist portrayals in media, as well as producers who provide clothing alternatives for young girls that produce modest, non-sexualizing outfits. Anxious to capitalize on possibly untapped markets, some producers are looking to present alternatives.

In each of these cases, we find that markets are responding to the preferences of consumers. In the case of the "pink tax," producers are making available goods that women are apparently willing to buy. In the case of wages, we find that wages reflect the types of work and career choices being freely made by women. In the case of portrayals in media, we find that that there, too, markets are delivering what is demanded. There may be reasons to take exception to the way consumers value goods and services, and what they ultimately purchase. In each case, however, the problem can only be addressed by changing the value systems of the consumers themselves. And then, the market will follow. 


Contact Felicia Jones

Felicia Aileen Jones works as the Student-faculty Coordinator at the Mises Institute. She is a former summer fellow and a Troy University graduate, earning her MA in economics in 2020 and her BBA in economics in 2017.

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