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Fat Discrimination at Work Just as Bad as Ever, Especially for Women

More than two-thirds of Americans over the age of 20 are overweight, according to the CDC, but prevalence doesn't mean acceptance. The professional world in particular discriminates against overweight workers, especially if those workers are female. A new study from Vanderbilt University found that overweight women were less likely to work in public-facing jobs, and suffered a severe wage penalty for weighing more than "normal" weight (as determined by the BMI, itself a controversial measuring stick).

More than two-thirds of Americans over the age of 20 are overweight, according to the CDC, but prevalence doesn’t mean acceptance. The professional world in particular discriminates against overweight workers, especially if those workers are female. A new study from Vanderbilt University found that overweight women were less likely to work in public-facing jobs, and suffered a severe wage penalty for weighing more than “normal” weight (as determined by the BMI, itself a controversial measuring stick).

measuring tape 

(Photo Credit: heavyweightgeek/Flickr)

“Starting when a woman becomes overweight, she is increasingly less likely to work in a personal interaction or personal communication occupation. And the heaviest women in the labor market are the least likely individuals to work in personal interaction occupations,” says Jennifer Shinall, author of the study and professor of law at Vanderbilt University Law School.

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In fact, the heavier women got, the more likely they were to work in a physically demanding job. Morbidly obese women were most likely to have jobs requiring a lot of physical activity, and even when they did work in professional settings, they earned 5 percent less than normal-weight women. The same wasn’t true for obese men, who earned the same amount in both physically demanding and personal-interaction heavy jobs as normal-weight men.

This was contrary to Shinall’s initial hypothesis.

“I predicted at the outset of this paper that obese workers would be less likely to work both in occupations emphasizing personal interaction and in occupations emphasizing physical activity,” she writes in her conclusions. “The empirical results have rejected this prediction with respect to occupations emphasizing physical activity.”

Obese men were more likely to work in highly physical jobs than normal-weight men, but all heavier women, including those who were categorized as overweight instead of obese or morbidly obese, were more likely to work in physically demanding jobs. Morbidly obese women were also less likely to work in jobs involving personal interaction, and those that did earned less than women who weighed less. In other words, the choice might not be a choice — it might be the effect of social pressures.

“My own personal experience supports the notion that fat women can get a raw deal when job-hunting,” writes Leslie Kinzel at XOJane. “I’ve been on lots of job interviews in my adult life, and even as a person with an unusual amount of self-confidence and a meticulous sense of personal presentation, I have lost count of the number of instances in which I have experienced this bias myself. I have had lengthy phone interviews with would-be bosses who seemed barely able to contain their certainty that I was the right person for the job — and then seen their faces perceptibly fall when I appeared in their office.”

It’s not even necessarily that these hiring managers made a conscious decision not to hire her, based on her physical appearance, Kinzel notes:

“Indeed, odds are strongly in favor of their not even being fully conscious of their bias, because it is often the nature of biases to be invisible to those they influence, and a revulsion toward fat people sure seems like a normal cultural response, unless you’ve ever been moved to think critically about it.”

There is an upside to Shinall’s findings, however: some fat acceptance activists have objected to discrimination against workers of size being included under the umbrella of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Shinall’s research, which demonstrates a sex and gender bias, might open the door for including this type of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits sex discrimination in employment.

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Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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