Yes, There Is a 'Pink Tax' on Women's Military Uniforms, Report Finds

A tailor examines the uniform of a recruit.
A tailor examines the uniform of a recruit with Platoon 4040, Papa Company, 4th Recruit Training Battalion Aug. 21, 2018 on Parris Island, S.C (U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Vivien Alstad)

A new congressionally ordered report into the out-of-pocket costs incurred by service members for uniform items confirms the long-held suspicion of many female troops that they're paying more than their male counterparts -- and shows that sometimes the difference is dramatic.

The 52-page report, released Thursday by the Government Accountability Office, outlines the realities of what some have called the "pink tax:" the higher cost of female uniform items, often not fully covered by clothing allowances.

The report finds, among other things, that the costs of essentials not included in the allowance calculations are significantly higher for women than men in every service; that female officers have been disproportionately burdened by numerous uniform changes over the past decades requiring the purchase of new items; and that out-of-pocket uniform costs for enlisted women can add up to $8,000 or more over a career, while some men report pocketing allowance overages.

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GAO was tasked with analyzing uniform costs to service members after Rep. Julia Brownley, a California Democrat, inserted a provision into the fiscal 2020 defense policy bill calling for data on reported gender disparities.

“As Chair of the Women Veterans Task Force, one of the issues I hear about most from currently-serving servicewomen is that they are consistently required to pay more for uniforms than men,” Brownley said in a statement Thursday night. “This report shows that both enlisted women and female officers are required to spend many times more than men on their uniforms … I am committed to crafting legislation to rectify the concerns laid out in this report.”

Enlisted troops' initial clothing allowance and clothing replacement allowances are determined annually and differ by service and gender. Across the board, initial clothing allowances are much higher for women, based on the items they need to acquire, such as handbags and physical training clothing. The annual basic clothing replacement allowance rates, however, are nearly equivalent for men and women for each service, ranging from roughly $310 in the Army to nearly $700 in the Marine Corps.

Officers receive an initial clothing allowance as well, but then are expected to pay out-of-pocket for uniform items for the remainder of their career.

By and large, the money provided by the services simply does not go as far for women as it does for men, the GAO report found. Between fiscal years 2015 and 2020, it found, the clothing replacement allowances covered 61.2% of costs for women in the Army and 69.3% for men. In the Air Force, the reimbursement rate for men was 91.2%, compared with just 76.3% for women. The same trend was consistent across every service.

Tracking across the course of a career shows how costs can accumulate over time. A chart compiled by GAO shows female enlisted soldiers accumulate an average of $5,000 in out-of-pocket uniform costs by their 5th year of service, and more than $8,000 by year 20; male soldiers, by comparison, averaged out-of-pocket costs of less than $4,000 by the 20-year mark.

The only group that reported being able to save some of their uniform replacement allowance over the course of a career was Air Force men, who pocketed an average of $2,000 by the 20-year mark.

GAO also found that six of the 18 uniform changes made by the various military services affected only women: those within the Navy and Marine Corps aimed at developing a more unisex look across the ranks. Many of these were initiated by former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and had the unintended consequence of saddling women in service with replacing still-serviceable uniform items.

The report found that part of the disparity seen in out-of-pocket uniform costs was because a number of items military women need are deemed "not uniquely military" and don't factor into clothing allowance calculations.

"Uniform items that the services have determined are required and that enlisted female service members must pay for beyond initial issuance in fiscal year 2020 include handbags for the Army, swimsuits for the Navy, and dress pumps for the Air Force and the Marine Corps," it stated. "While enlisted male service members also receive in their initial provision of clothing some items such as male underwear, undershirts, and athletic socks for which they do not receive a clothing replacement allowance, those items are generally less costly to replace than similar items that females must replace out-of-pocket."

Another factor is the higher cost of some female uniform items, the report notes.

"For example, in fiscal year 2020, the Army's Service Uniform coat costs about $108 for female officers and about $126 for male officers," it said. "Conversely, officials also told us the lower number of female versus male uniform items ordered by the DLA often results in higher per item costs for female items. For example, the Army estimates the new Army Green Service Uniform dress coat will cost about $163 for enlisted females and $82 for enlisted males."

For a House policy aide who worked on the bill that prompted the report and discussed the matter with on background, that's not a good enough reason to make female troops pay more, however.

"I don't know how 'women's uniforms cost more to make' is still an acceptable excuse for people who are putting their lives on the line for the country," the aide said.

The root issue is pay equity, the aide added.

"The equity principle also calls for the concept of equal pay for substantially equal work under the same general working conditions," the report states. " … Specifically, comparability refers to the specific items of basic pay, basic-pay related items, allowances, and benefits."

The GAO's recommendations for change included the development of new criteria for determining which clothing items are considered uniquely military, with consistency across the services; a periodic review of items included in the services' clothing replacement allowance calculations; a requirement that military services submit plans to the Defense Department for changing uniform items, with cost estimates, before making a change; and an assessment of expected out-of-pocket cost differences for service members in connection with a uniform change.

The DoD concurred with all recommendations, according to the report.

The policy aide suggested two more changes, based on feedback from female service members: subsidize the cost difference of uniform items that are more expensive for women; and provide a one-time stipend to current female troops to account for disproportionate out-of-pocket costs they've already incurred.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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