An Australian café's decision to charge female customers 18 percent less than men to raise awareness of the gender wage gap has attracted international media attention—and controversy—after men protested the move.
Handsome Her, a Melbourne vegan café, announced the move on a chalkboard placed outside the venue. "Handsome Her is a space by women, for women," the sign read. "Men will be charged an 18 percent premium to reflect the gender wage gap (2016) which is donated to a women's service [sic]."
Australia's gender wage gap—the difference between average pay between men and women—stood at 18 percent in 2016, which is comparable with many other developed nations (the UK's gender wage gap is the same, and the USA's slightly lower at 17 percent.)
In an interview with Broadsheet Melbourne, owner Alex O'Brien explained that the measure was designed to raise awareness of the gender wage gap. "I do want people to think about it, because we've had this (pay discrepancy) for decades and decades and we're bringing it to the forefront of people's minds. I like that it is making men stop and question their privilege a little bit," O'Brien told the publication.
The extra charging only applies one week out of every month, and is voluntary: Men who object to the extra cost will have the surcharge waived. "We are not imposing the surcharge, it's voluntary," O'Brien told Broadsheet Melbourne. The first set of money raised will be donated to a support organization for Aboriginal women and children.
Similar business-led initiatives to raise awareness of the gender wage gap have been around for a while. In New Hampshire, the Works Bakery charged female customers 79 percent less than male customers on International Women's Day 2016. But despite greater recognition of gender inequality, progress on closing the global wage gap remains slow.
Do such initiatives actually help raise awareness of the problem—or can they backfire? Predictably, Handsome Her's initiative has attracted controversy online (although many also welcomed the move.) "I am all for treating woman with respect and equally but this is just stupid," wrote one Twitter user. Another described the move as "illegal."
"In the UK, section 29 of the Equality Act prohibits discrimination by service providers in the provision of goods and services, so this would be unlawful," says Suzanne Horne of the Employment Law department at Paul Hastings Law firm.
In the US, such an initiative might be in violation of some state laws. "It [charging men more for the same good] doesn't violate federal law, but a minority of states prohibit sex discrimination in 'public accommodations' and California prohibits sex discrimination in contracting generally," says Ian Ayres, lawyer and professor at Yale.
"Generally price differentials based on gender are dressed up in some way to justify the difference," explains Regina Austin of Penn Law School, citing female deodorant as an item that's commonly more expensive for men than women. However, Austin's uncertain as to whether a voluntary surcharge men could opt out of, as in Handsome Her's case, would also be illegal in the US. Legality aside, some experts say such measures are unlikely to actually achieve much.
"I think it is a nice supportive gesture but it is unlikely to be effective," comments Professor Diane Perrons of the London School of Economics. "However if it initiates a conversation about the significance of the gender pay gap then maybe it is doing some good. The gender pay gap is deeply rooted, but acknowledging its existence and significance is an important and necessary condition for policy development."