Let’s face it, we all suspect that service providers are fleecing us, especially if the service provided is mysterious to us—fixing cars, for one thing. The phrase “lambs to the slaughter” leaps to mind. How are we supposed to know if a brake job should cost $500 or $2,000? Well, it pays to know, especially if you’re a woman. Have you heard that phrase, “They see you coming”? It’s true, they do.

According to a new study, “Repairing the Damage: The Effect of Price Expectations on Auto-Repair Price Quotes,” from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, women get the short end of the stick a lot of the time. According to the report,“When it comes to auto repairs, women who don’t appear knowledgeable about cost may end up paying more than men. However, gender differences disappear when customers mention an expected price for the repair.” In other words, if you have no idea what something should cost—and you’re female—it will cost more.

The Northwestern team dreamt up a 2003 Toyota Camry radiator replacement that should cost $365, and sent forth callers expecting it to cost more than that ($510) or just completely ignorant. A radiator, what’s that? Women callers not knowing a radiator from a rear end got hit with an average quote of $406; men came in at $383.

According to Meghan Busse, a professor of management and strategy at Northwestern, “Our findings suggest that auto shops may assume men know the market price for a given repair, so they automatically grant it. They may not expect women to be knowledgeable in this area, so the perception is they can charge them more.”

ABC's "The Lookout" show went undercover and also found extensive overcharging of women.

An odd corollary to all this is that women tend to do better in negotiating a lower price than that initially quoted. “It’s kind of an ironic twist,” according to Florian Zettelmeyer, a marketing professor at Kellogg School. “The same kind of cultural expectations that cause repair shops to overcharge women are probably also responsible for showing preference for women in negotiations.”

This point is perfectly illustrated by Rebecca W. at Yahoo! Answers:

I called a tire store to get prices for two new tires for my car. I was told the cost would be about $250. Having taken care of my cars alone for some time, this seemed on the way-too-high side. So I had my male coworker call the same store and for the exact same estimate. His was for $150. My next call was to the store manager. I not only got the tires, mounted and balanced, for $150. I also got a 10 percent discount and heartfelt (seemingly) apologies. On the other hand, when I go to the junkyard and act ‘girlie’ they tend to pull the part I need for me, at no extra charge. So it does work both ways.
And it’s not just car repairs, of course. Women don't get much respect from auto dealers, despite the fact they buy 60 percent of new cars (and 53 percent of used ones), but often get shafted on price. An older American Economic Review study by Ian Ayres of Yale Law School and Peter Siegelman of the American Bar Foundation found “large and statistically significant differences in prices quoted to test buyers or different races and genders.” At least part of the reason for that is “dealers’ inferences about consumer reservation prices,” or what they know and what they’re willing to pay.

A CarMax poll found that 19 percent of women respondents didn’t think they got fair trade-in value, 15 percent said they didn’t have a trustworthy salesperson, and 13 percent said fair pricing was elsewhere.

On a more positive note, a recent survey found 79 percent of women feeling more confident than previously when dealing with dealers (the number is up 16 points since 2000) and 78 percent feel better about bringing their car in for servicing (up 22 points). In general, they feel taken more seriously than they used to be.

The moral of this story is the same as the Boy Scouts’ motto—Be Prepared. If you call for a service quote, have a good general idea what it should cost—and cite that figure during the conversation. If you’re buying a car, come armed with the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) and, if possible, what the dealer paid for the vehicle you’re interested in.

At Helium.com, a poster identified only as “Lady” writes that “20 percent of women consult with family mechanics before they go out and try to get the job handled, 10 percent have the sense to take a guy friend in to the mechanic shop. And 70 percent go into the shop by themselves to find that a mechanic looking at them like vulnerable prey, ready to charge a huge bill for something that may have only taken 10 minutes to fix.”

Here's the Lookout's video on shady mechanics:

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Why women pay more for car repairs
When women appear knowledgeable, they don't get fleeced, according to new study