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Who should pay more for a haircut: Fabio or Sinead O'Connor?

If asked that question survey-style, nearly everyone answers that Fabio, the long-haired male model, ought to pay more than Sinead, the female singer with the shaved head. Long hair just sounds like a lot more trouble to cut.But the reality is that most hairdressers in America would insist on a higher price from O'Connor, based on the simple fact that she is a woman. When it comes to haircuts, there has always been an implicit gender surcharge.

In one state, however, that surcharge is now illegal. A few months ago, California Gov. Pete Wilson signed into law the Gender Tax Repeal Act, banning any sex-based charges unrelated to the true cost of providing a service.

The law was the creation of Assemblywoman Jackie Speier, who had declared war on what she called "an unwritten act of discrimination."

Research in California and other states had found that the gender "tax" was being levied on far more than haircuts. One survey found that 64 percent of dry cleaners charged an average of $2 extra to launder women's shirts. Women usually have to pay to get their clothes altered at department stores, even at stores that alter men's suits for free. In New York, women are quoted higher car prices 40 percent of the time; the reverse is almost never true.

But it's haircuts that became a main issue in California. Some 40 percent of the salons surveyed were charging women more than men for basic haircuts.

Some of the hairdressers justified it by saying women's hair is longer and takes more time to cut. But that didn't explain why women with crew cuts were paying more than men with ponytails. Nor does anyone seem to have any conclusive evidence that long hair really is more time-consuming to cut than short hair. It's simpler just to impose a gender tax - and it's always been easy to get away with. As far as the salons are concerned, it's pretty much cut and dried.

The same is true for cleaning. Dry cleaners who charge a higher price to women say that women's clothing requires more time and labor because it's smaller, doesn't fit on standard presses and has to be done by hand. But few cleaners have shown any interest in buying smaller presses. Besides, even without buying new equipment, establishments could spread the extra labor costs around by raising everybody's price a few pennies.

In fact, most dry cleaners continue to levy a gender tax even when women bring in clothes that clearly fit a standard-size press. Peter Blake, associate executive director of the North East Fabricare Association, concedes that gender pricing is wrong and says he urges his members not to do it. But there is no sign that many are taking his advice.

So California has struck out in a new direction by making gender pricing a crime, punishable by a minimum $1,000 fine. Other states are considering the idea. Florida - home of the "potty parity" law aimed at increasing the number of toilets in women's restrooms - took up a California-style gender pricing bill last session. It cleared a House committee, then stalled in the Senate.

It remains to be seen whether the California law has any teeth in it. It specifically allows businesses to charge men and women a different price if they can show that the price is based on the time, difficulty or cost of providing the service.

John Banzhaf, a law professor who has argued against gender pricing, says this is too big a loophole. He thinks California businesses can still find a way to discriminate, such as by refusing to purchase the presses that can handle women's shirts.

Banzhaf also thinks that specific laws against gender pricing may be unnecessary - that the practice is already illegal under existing civil rights laws. A group of Banzhaf's students at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., pressed charges against local dry cleaners and hair salons, citing the D.C. Human Rights Act. Many establishments agreed to end the two-price system.

Even Banzhaf concedes, however, that the gender tax is a deeply rooted practice and will not be easy to eradicate. "We never found a barber shop saying white man's hair is one price and black man's hair is another," he says. "Somehow discrimination on the basis of gender isn't seen as wrong."

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)