Dry cleaning(Photo: Courtesy of Marie Claire)

Q: Why Does this Shirt Cost More to Clean than that One?

A: Because it belongs to a woman. Over the course of your lifetime, you'll pay more than a man for everything from health insurance to haircuts, dry cleaning to deodorant. Here's how businesses get away with sex discrimination, and what you can do to stop it

THREE YEARS AGO, Janet Floyd, the cofounder of a Manhattan market research firm, spotted a neighborhood dry cleaner that offered the following deal: Launder four shirts and get the fifth laundered for free. Button-downs are a staple of Floyd's wardrobe, so she returned carrying an armload of oxfords. But when she dropped the shirts on the counter, she was told that the offer applied only to men's shirts, not "blouses." "The owner of the store insisted women's shirts didn't fit on their machines and needed to be hand-pressed," says Floyd. (The cleaner charged roughly $2 to launder a dress shirt versus $6.50 to dry-clean a blouse.) Floyd then asked if she could pay the higher price on four of her shirts and still get the fifth cleaned for free. The owner declined. "It was outrageous. They were giving this huge discount to men, and we weren't getting one," she fumes.

Sounds like blatant discrimination, right? It is, and yet it's perfectly legal. Though civil rights laws prohibit job and housing discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation, there's no federal law banning discrimination in the sale of goods and services. Several cities and states have adopted their own antidiscrimination statutes, but they are often vague and rife with loopholes--like the one that lets dry cleaners charge more if the garment requires "extra labor." (Many cleaners don't even launder women's shirts, forcing female customers to dry-clean everything.) While it would be unthinkable to encounter a menu of services that overtly discriminates on the basis of, say, race — imagine a salon that posted different prices for blacks and whites--it's a long-standing practice when it comes to services that target men and women. "This is a problem that has gone on for many years," explains professor John Banzhaf of the George Washington University Law School. "Even though it's well recognized, people sit back and go, 'Well, that's just the way it is.' And if you compare it with all the problems women face, it's certainly not in the top one, three, even five."

In fact, being a woman in this country has become an increasingly expensive proposition. It's not just dry cleaning and haircuts where women get socked: We pay more for home mortgages, health insurance, and cars and car repairs (even when we mind our credit, eat right and exercise, and do our homework), not to mention everyday items like deodorant and disposable razors. California, which in 1996 became the first state to ban gender pricing, found that women paid about $1,351 annually in extra costs and fees. Apply that figure to the rest of the women in the country and the total burden is staggering — roughly $151 billion in markups, more than what the federal government spent on education last year and greater than the budgets of 43 states.

Even more startling is how little outrage the issue seems to summon among women, though we lose out in nearly every transaction we make. Last year, the European Union's top court outlawed all forms of insurance-related gender pricing, a move that will have profound repercussions for any European who drives or buys into a health-insurance plan. Yet there's no movement here to change the law, no marches in Washington or sit-ins at Congress, no viral Facebook or YouTube campaigns. And without meaningful legislation that demands equality for men and women at the cash register, change will have to come one lawsuit at a time. And who goes to court over a dry-cleaning bill?