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Sex Bias Still Lives--Even for Dry Cleaning

September 07, 1986|JOHN F. LAWRENCE

The seven shirts all looked alike, so even when told two of them were women's, the dry cleaning shop owner simply wrote down seven at $1.10 each and prepared the bundle to go to the off-premises laundry he uses.

When the shirts came back, the bill had been changed to show five shirts at $1.10 and two blouses at $2.50. That, despite the fact the shirts were all hung in plastic together, their gender still almost indistinguishable.

It's a striking example of how women continue to face discrimination in the marketplace. It also shows how stubbornly some industries resist reacting to a changing society and to rising consumer pressure.

The discrepancy in laundry and dry cleaning prices is not a new controversy. Two years ago, feminist attorney Gloria Allred forced a cleaning establishment that charged her client $2.75 for women's shirts when they charged only $2.35 for men's to change its practice. Her suit, which was settled out of court, was filed under a state civil rights act that provides for at least $250 in damages per offense. Nonetheless, the practice remains widespread. "I'm still getting letters," Allred says.

Dry cleaning industry leaders defend the pricing policy by maintaining that women's shirts cost more to press than men's--as much as 10 times more, according to Doris Easley, an industry consultant and member of the soon-to-be-phased-out State Board of Fabric Care.

At Joy Cleaners & Laundry in Van Nuys, which charges the $1.10 and $2.50 rates for men's and women's shirts, owner Fred Moore maintains that the $24,000 piece of equipment used to process as many as 100 men's shirts an hour can't handle the smaller sizes of the typical women's shirts, even when the shirts are otherwise much the same. To similarly automate finishing women's shirts requires another $18,000 piece of equipment, too expensive for the relatively small quantity of shirts involved. He contends that only 10% of the shirts he receives are for women.

Some in Industry Disagree

The argument might sound reasonable except that smaller shirts for teen-age boys generally don't draw a higher charge. And some people in the industry believe that the pricing differential is wrong. "I think they take advantage of women," another dry cleaning shop owner said. "The problem is women often care more about their appearance and so are willing to pay more." This usually means paying more for getting suits dry cleaned as well, this owner added.

Allred, at the time of her lawsuit, says she found dry cleaners who charged the same for men and women and asked one of them why the apparent discrimination existed elsewhere in the industry. "Very simple," she says she was told, "because they can get away with it."

The problem includes more than just the prices paid for getting clothing cleaned. It also extends to what the clothes cost in the first place. A recent stop at a major department store found men's wool worsted pinstripe suits priced generally around $345. A floor away, women's suits that looked identical in every respect, save the skirt, carried price tags of $455.

At another store, an official said there's a big price differential on some kinds of shirts. A standard Oxford cloth shirt for women sometimes runs twice as much as the same style for men.

Some of this price discrepancy is justified by the manufacturers because the women's versions require more work. Shirts need more shaping. Women generally demand more lining in their suits. But industry people say that women are more fashion-conscious and will pay more, hence price competition is somewhat less than in men's lines.

Allred cites the case of her teen-age daughter who went to purchase a ski jacket. A sales clerk discovered her looking at the men's racks and said, "Your jackets are over there."

" 'Over there' costs $30 more," the daughter responded testily.

Their protestations to the contrary, it's evident that some businesses are still giving women customers a bad deal. And the industries involved, as Allred puts it, "shouldn't have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th Century."

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