Is There a Pink Tax?

photo of woman holding pink and blue razorsWe’ve reported on the pay gap between men and women and on women’s lower retirement income compared to men’s.

Is there also a “Pink Tax,” where women’s products cost more than men’s? Today’s WatchBlog looks at our recent report on gender-related price differences. Listen to our podcast on some of the price differences we explored, then read on for more.

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What we found

To explore the issue, we looked at prices for 10 categories of personal care products—things like deodorants, shaving creams, razors, and fragrances. We chose these categories because we found that firms make slight alterations to the products—different scents, colors, sizes—to differentiate them for men and women.

Figure 1: Illustrative Example of Similar Products Differentiated to Appeal to Men and Women

After controlling for product size and other factors that may have explained some of the price differences, we found:

  • Prices for five of the personal care items we looked at were higher for women: underarm and body deodorants, shaving cream, designer perfume, and body sprays.
  • Two men’s items cost more: nondisposable razors and shaving gel.
  • There was no clear difference for 3 other products—disposable razors, razor blades, and mass market perfumes.

Does this mean that we can conclude there is a Pink Tax on women’s products?

Not necessarily.

Important factors we couldn’t fully control for were costs for advertising and differences in willingness to pay. So, if firms are spending significantly more on advertising costs for women’s products, or if women value things like package design and scents more than men, that could partly explain a higher price.

Is that legal?

In a legal sense, nothing prevents firms from charging different prices for men’s and women’s versions of personal care products. Firms may be pursuing strategies to maximize their profits, and it’s up to consumers to understand any price differences.

While no federal law expressly prohibits businesses from charging different prices for similar goods targeted to men and women, federal agencies can identify concerns about gender discrimination through their oversight of anti-discrimination statutes. For example, agencies monitor trends in the complaints they receive from consumers.

However, our analysis of complaints for three agencies found that there were very few complaints related to price differences for consumer goods. Given the limited consumer concern, they haven’t identified a need to incorporate additional materials specific to gender-related price differences.

We also reviewed a number of studies on gender-related price differences for financial products like mortgages, where discrimination based on sex is prohibited. The evidence of price differences was mixed, but these studies had important data limitations. Finally, some state and local governments have passed laws to address concerns about gender-related price differences. For example, in 1995, California enacted a law that prohibits businesses from charging different prices for the same or similar goods and services based on a customer’s gender.

To learn more about gender-related price differences for consumer products and services and the consumer complaint processes of federal agencies, check out our full report.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Alicia Puente Cackley at CackleyA@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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Innovative Design in Federal Buildings

Photo showing example of an atrium in a design excellence building that survey respondents told us increased operations and maintenance costsLeaky roofs, broken A/C units, cracked tiles—as the owner of a vast inventory of buildings, the federal government deals with these and other maintenance issues on a daily basis.

Since 1994, the government has built 78 office buildings and courthouses under the General Services Administration’s (GSA) Design Excellence Program. This program is a response to criticism that federal buildings are uninspiring, and stresses creativity in building design. As a result, many federal buildings constructed under this program have unique design elements, such as multi-story atriums, walls of windows, and attractive landscaping.

But how does the federal government plan for the day-to-day costs to operate and maintain buildings with these unique features? Today’s WatchBlog explores.

Lower—and higher—costs

Some design choices, such as natural light, durable materials, and low-maintenance landscaping, led to lower overall operations and maintenance costs in these buildings. For example, First Street Federal Courthouse in Los Angeles has a light well as a part of its atrium and a serrated glass façade that maximizes natural light. Consequently, most of the courtrooms receive natural light from multiple sources—which reduces energy use.

Figure showing design excellence buildings with durable and easily maintained materials and finishes, low maintenance landscaping, and increased natural light, according to building managers

However, other design choices, such as separate structures (like rotundas), custom windows, and multi-story atriums, led to higher maintenance costs. For instance, the rotunda in the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., had water stains on the ceiling from leaking roof gutters. And while fixing gutters is a common maintenance activity, specialists had to be hired to fix these gutters because the dome roof has no area to stand.

GSA officials at one courthouse reported repairing a two-story, custom-made window pane, which cost $80,000 to fabricate and $50,000 to install.

Figure showing large, custom windows ina design excellence building that increased operations and maintenance costs, according to building managers

Multistory atriums often led to additional costs, including the need to erect expensive scaffolding for maintenance.

Photos showing atriums that increased operations and maintenance costs in buildings constructed under GSA's design excellence program, according to respondents

Blueprint for the future

Undertaking operations and maintenance activities will cost more than initial construction over the life of a building. Consequently, decisions made during the planning and design process can result in cost-savings—or unexpected expenses.

However, we found that GSA did not fully factor operations and maintenance costs into their building planning process. Instead, the agency:

  • Only considered the operations and maintenance costs of large systems that required energy
  • Did not consistently gather or use input from staff with operations and maintenance experience
  • Did not ensure information on lessons learned was shared

We recommended that GSA update its procedures for planning and designing new buildings to better take into account the costs of operating and maintaining these buildings.


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Key Trends with a Major Impact on Our Nation and Its Government (video)

Image showing GAO's Strategic Plan 2018-2023 cover pageAn increasingly volatile world makes understanding evolving trends and issues essential. Our latest strategic plan for 2018-2023 explores eight key trends which will have serious consequences for our nation and its government.

Our video explains trends and emerging issues that could impact the nation and shape our audit work.

Key Trends

  • Global security threats—such as cyberattacks and activities of international and homegrown terrorists
  • Impacts on the U.S. workforce due to new technologies and the new skills they require, automation, and the need to train workers using our country’s educational systems
  • Science and technology advances, such as genome editing, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin
  • The federal government’s increasing debt making a fiscal crisis more likely, reducing national savings and income, increasing government’s interest costs; and limiting response to unforeseen events
  • Impacts of differing economic growth among nations—our policies have not addressed the needs of countries experiencing globalization and technological change
  • Changes caused by shifting demographics—the effect of population growth, aging, increased diversity, and income inequality on major government programs and budgets
  • Challenges faced by the federal government—an increased reliance on contractors and other parties to get things done, while facing evolving issues like health care and aging infrastructure
  • Environmental security–balancing the need to use natural resources critical to our economy with an increasingly stressed environment  and the need for sustainability

For more on these key trends, check out the full report.


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DHS Cybersecurity Workforce

Photo showing hands on a laptop computer keyboardSecure federal computer systems depend on the federal and contractor workforce who design, develop, implement, secure, maintain, and use them. But the federal government faces a persistent shortage of workers trained in cybersecurity and information technology.

The Department of Homeland Security is the lead agency responsible for protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure from cyber threats. So, how is DHS assessing its cybersecurity workforce needs? Today’s WatchBlog explores.

The Homeland Security Cybersecurity Workforce Act

Having an effective cybersecurity workforce is particularly essential to DHS’s mission.  It must protect the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of its own computer systems and information. Also, DHS coordinates with public and private sector partners in protecting federal civilian networks and the nation’s critical infrastructure.

The Homeland Security Cybersecurity Workforce Assessment Act of 2014 (Act) requires DHS to:

  • identify all cybersecurity workforce positions within the department
  • determine the cybersecurity work category and specialty area of such positions
  • assign the corresponding employment code to each cybersecurity position
  • identify and report on its cybersecurity workforce areas of critical need

Is DHS meeting requirements of the Act?

We found that while DHS has acted to comply with the requirements of the Act, its actions have neither been timely nor complete. For example, DHS did not:

  • complete efforts to identify all of the department’s cybersecurity positions
  • establish procedures to identify, categorize, and code its cybersecurity position vacancies and responsibilities
  • accurately assign codes to all filled and vacant cybersecurity positions

In addition, although DHS has sought to identify its workforce capability gaps, it has not identified or reported to Congress or the Office of Personnel Management on its critical cybersecurity needs in specialty areas.

We recommended that DHS take six actions to ensure that:

  • its cybersecurity workforce procedures identify position vacancies and responsibilities
  • reported workforce data are complete and accurate
  • plans for reporting on critical needs are developed

DHS concurred with the recommendations and stated it planned to take actions to address them in 2018.


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Is Your Medicare Information Safe?

Photo showing a pair of handsIs the Medicare information that doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies have about you, your parents, or your grandparents well protected?

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) oversees the Medicare program, which covers nearly 58 million aged and disabled Americans. Federal spending for Medicare benefits totaled approximately $696 billion in fiscal year 2016. Every dollar that is spent on Medicare is connected to someone’s personal information, and if that information is not carefully secured, it could result in financial fraud.

Today’s WatchBlog explores how CMS protects Medicare data.

Who Can See Medicare Information?

As part of running the Medicare program, CMS shares data on Medicare recipients with other groups for three major reasons:

  •  Medicare Administrative Contractors (MAC) use this data to process the payment of Medicare benefits.
  • Researchers use this data to study how recipients get health care services.
  • “Qualified entities”—public or private organizations responsible for reporting on provider performance for one or more locations—use this data to determine how well Medicare service providers and equipment suppliers are performing.

Figure showing CMS sharing of fee-for-service beneficiary data with external entities

Is Guidance for Guarding Personal Information Being Followed?

CMS has set requirements that follow federal standards for MACs and qualified entities about guarding personal information. However, while researchers are required to follow federal standards, they are not given detailed guidance on which specific security measures to put in place. CMS notes that when researchers don’t have to follow specific guidance, they have more flexibility to assess security risks and decide which security measures to use. But this flexibility may result in researchers not using security measures that meet CMS standards. We recommended that CMS establish specific guidance for researchers so that they put in place security measures that are consistent and effective.

Who Ensures that Security Measures Are Effectively Carried Out?

In addition to setting requirements for MACs, researchers, and qualified entities, CMS must ensure that these groups are effectively carrying out CMS’s security measures. While assessing effective performance is a good management practice, the Federal Information Security Management Act also requires this. CMS is specifically required to assess the MACs under the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003.

We found that CMS is performing assessments for MACs but is not always tracking their findings effectively. We recommended that CMS track all findings for MACs and set up oversight programs for qualified entities and researchers. Currently, CMS does not have assessment programs for these groups.

Check out our full report to learn more.


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2017 Hurricanes and Wildfires

Photo of U.S. Department of Homeland Security and FEMA signsIn 2017, four disasters over the space of four months—Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and the California wildfires—created an extraordinary demand for federal disaster assistance.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which coordinates the federal response to disasters, estimated the disasters affected 47 million people in areas including Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and California.

According to FEMA, the 2017 hurricane season was among the busiest it ever experienced in disaster response activities. Today’s WatchBlog looks at challenges FEMA faced in helping communities and how it is preparing for future disasters. Listen to our podcast, and read on for more.

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Challenges faced in 2017

FEMA faced challenges executing its response and recovery missions, particularly in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. FEMA’s response efforts there were severely complicated and slowed due to staffing shortages from responding to multiple hurricanes, logistical challenges in getting relief to Puerto Rico, and lack of power and preparedness on the island.

Figure showing damaged power lines and satellite dish in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in November 2017

The timing and scale of the disaster damages nationwide caused shortages in available debris removal contractors and delays in removing debris. Officials in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and California reported challenges with debris removal operations following each disaster in 2017, for example, clearing trees as well as residential, commercial, and construction goods, including hazardous materials.

Figure showing residential debris awaiting pick up in Texas following historic flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017

Figure showing marine debris in Florida Keys canal following Hurricane Irma in 2017In addition, officials struggled to find temporary housing for disaster survivors in each location. For example, FEMA transported survivors in Puerto Rico to the mainland United States to stay in hotels. In Texas, FEMA used new authorities to provide Texas with over $1 billion to manage its own housing program.

Figure showing temporary blue roofs in Puerto Rico installed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after Hurricane Maria in February 2018

The 2017 disasters overwhelmed FEMA’s workforce. FEMA was not prepared to deploy personnel to four near-simultaneous disasters. We also found that FEMA struggled to both train and retain employees. The figure below shows the total federal disaster workforce deployed to the various disasters in 2017.

Figure showing number of federal disaster workforce deployed in response to the 2017 disasters in September 2017 through February 2018

Preparing for the 2018 hurricane season

Based on its review of actions taken in response to the 2017 hurricanes, FEMA has taken steps to prepare for the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season. For example, FEMA updated hurricane response plans and procedures for all states and territories. In May 2018, FEMA also conducted a large 2-week training exercise to improve response and initial recovery operations capabilities.

We are conducting a comprehensive review of the federal government’s national preparedness capabilities, training, and funding; we plan to issue that report in the summer of 2019.

To learn more about FEMA’s response and recovery work in 2017, check out the full report.


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Working in the Gig Economy

Photo of someone using a cell phoneOn Labor Day, we consider the nature of employment for many of the nation’s workers. Today’s WatchBlog looks at the opportunities and challenges that “gig” workers—those employed in on-demand, non-standard work—may face.

Who are gig workers?

While there is no official definition of gig workers, we identify them as self-employed workers performing single projects or tasks on demand for pay. In many cases, they may get work through app-based platforms, like drivers for ridesharing companies or furniture movers. Gig workers may work either part-time or full-time, whether as a main or supplemental source of income.

What opportunities do gig workers have?

Workers may choose gig work for many reasons. Some potential benefits of gig work:

  • flexibility (to work around other responsibilities, such as childcare)
  • autonomy (ability to set own hours and be “own boss”)
  • income (supplemental or to fill in between jobs)
  • the ability to help build a business, a resume, or experience
  • low barrier to entry
  • the ability to pursue a passion

What challenges do gig workers face?

Some challenges gig workers might encounter:

  • lack of financial security
  • lack of benefits
  •  increased risk that arises from increased liability and high rate of failure in self-employment, among other reasons
  • lack of stability
  • challenges to running a business

What training is available for gig workers?

We examined the training needs of gig workers and noted that gig workers may benefit from developing soft skills (such as customer service, time management, and self-motivation) and business skills (like marketing, financial literacy and management). Many of these skills can be provided through existing federal programs that help individuals navigate the challenges of self-employment. However, officials on the ground cited a lack of information about promising practices for gig work as a challenge to providing support.

With new opportunities for gig work, our nations’ system of workforce protections and supports may have to adapt to changing needs. We also will need more information on this segment of the workforce in order to provide this support.

For more information, check out our full report.


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Students’ Performance in School Has Many Causes

Photo of students' raised handsAs students head back to school, a series of our reports show there can be causes other than academic ability that affect children’s performance. Today’s WatchBlog will test your knowledge about some of the issues affecting the nation’s school age children.

Where can students access extra academic help and food programs?

Nearly 2,400 federally-funded organizations give children food and extra academic help before and after school. The Department of Education awards 21st Century Community Learning Centers grants to improve student outcomes in high-poverty or low-performing K-12 schools. The centers we visited offered help in reading and math, science and technology, art and music, and fitness and nutrition. Continue reading

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How Is TSA Ensuring Flights from Cuba Are Secure?

Photo showing Transportation Security Administration Inspectors preparing to inspect an aircraft at Frank Pais Airport in Holguin, CubaIt wasn’t long ago that the only way to fly to Cuba from the United States was via a private plane or a chartered flight.

However, in August 2016, the first scheduled commercial flight in over 50 years made the trip and new agreements allowed daily scheduled flights between the two countries.

So, how does the Transportation Security Administration ensure the security of U.S.-bound aircraft from Cuba? Today’s WatchBlog explores our recent report on what TSA found in Cuba. Continue reading

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Our Annual “Quick Look” at Homeland Security’s Major Acquisitions

To help it carry out its many missions, which include preventing terrorism and managing U.S. borders, the Department of Homeland Security makes major purchases like ships, air passenger screening equipment, and IT.

In fact, DHS estimates it will invest more than $207.2 billion in its major acquisitions—its portfolio currently contains more than 70 such programs, which generally cost more than $300 million each.

We took a look at how these acquisition programs are performing in our recently issued fourth annual report on DHS acquisitions. Today’s WatchBlog explores. Continue reading

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