Junkfood Science: Lookism

October 25, 2007


Are men and women judged differently at work? Do appearances, rather than qualifications, dedication and work performance, actually influence hiring practices, career advancement opportunities and raises? New research just published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior found that the most common form of workplace bias continues to be race or ethnicity. But for very fat white women, it is their weight. For them, it’s a source for more discriminatory practices than age, gender, race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or disability. But the researchers findings brought more surprises.

The fact that prejudices, insensitivities and inequities against fat people exist in the workplace was documented by professors Rebecca Puhl and Kelly Brownell in their classic 2001 article in Obesity Research. But no research has yet attempted to objectively learn how prevalent weight discrimination might be and sort it out from gender and race ... until now. This study, led by Mark Roehling of the School of Labor and Industrial Relations at Michigan State University in East Lansing, not only found that body weight bias exists in workplaces across the country, but that there are dramatic differences according to gender, race and weight.

For those unfamiliar with the work of Puhl and Brownell, they described studies of stereotypic attitudes among employers, showing that fat people may be at a substantial disadvantage in employment, beginning during the hiring process. Several studies using various techniques, such as videotape interviews, found that employers were significantly less likely to hire qualified fat applicants and more apt to judge them as lacking self-discipline and having low managerial potential, less ambition, poor personal hygiene, and less likely to be productive.

Such prejudices carry over into wages and career advancement opportunities, they documented, as over a dozen studies had found that fat employees are assumed by bosses “to lack self-discipline, be lazy, less conscientious, less competent, sloppy, disagreeable, and emotionally unstable. Obese employees are also believed to think slower, have poorer attendance records, and be poor role models.” As Puhl and Brownell reported, fewer ‘obese’ people are hired for high-level positions, they receive lower wages for the same jobs performed by thinner coworkers, and are more likely to be denied promotions. A study of over 2,000 women and men reported that obesity lowers wage growth rates by nearly 6%. But several national surveys have reported that ‘obese’ women appear to face the greatest wage-related bias, earning 12% less than thinner women.

The mere existence of weight discrimination, however, doesn’t tell us if it occurs in great numbers among the general population, nor separate it out from possible racial/ethnic and gender discrimination. Most surveys in the past have involved select groups, such as fat acceptance or weight loss organizations, making it difficult to generalize throughout workplaces. That’s what makes this new study so important to furthering our understanding weight prejudices and how it can impact the health and welfare of millions of Americans.

The researchers began by reviewing the research published since 2001, finding that weight discrimination in employment appears to be growing internationally. Simultaneously, human resource managers are becoming increasingly troubled about the legal implications of such discrimination and its potentially devastating costs to employers who fail to recognize and remedy such practices. It is also becoming a growing issue for policy makers faced with calls for legislation to protect against weight discrimination. And as the medical literature grows, healthcare professionals as never before are recognizing the health effects of the stress of discrimination, along with its economic impact.

This study quantified perceived discrimination in employment settings because “research has shown that the perception that one has been the victim of employment discrimination may have adverse psychological and physical health outcomes for employees.” It is the perception that one is treated differently based on being associated with a group and the belief that his/her treatment is unfair or unjust that also affects job satisfaction, workplace dynamics, career decisions and job turnover.

These researchers randomly interviewed 2,838 adults (average age 44.8 years and half male) from the MacArthur Foundation National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States database, a nationally representative sample of noninstitutionalized English-speaking adults in the continental U.S. Everyone in their cohort had worked and all had BMIs of 19 or greater. They controlled for variables such as age, marital and socioeconomic status, height, education and occupation. The respondents were asked open-ended questions to determine if they’d experienced “at least one of three forms of employment discrimination (not hired for a job, not given a job promotion, fired from a job), and identified weight as a primary basis for his or her discriminatory experience.”

Overall, they reported that “weight-related perceived discrimination was found among 4% of the total sample, a frequency that was greater than employment discrimination attributed to religion, disability, or sexual orientation.” But there was a “dramatic difference between sexes among very obese respondents, with 27.7% of very obese women reporting weight-related employment discrimination, and only 12.1% of the men.”

And weight discrimination steadily increased with weight— occurring in 27.9% of very ‘obese’ women compared to 6.6% of ‘obese’ women, 2.7% of ‘overweight’ women, and 0.7% of ‘normal weight women. Of surprise to these researchers was that at even low levels of ‘overweight,’ women reported experiencing weight bias. This negates the integrity of workplace weight discrimination policies reserved only for the most obese, they said, but necessitates it be prohibited in general.

The research indicates there are different standards for men and women, Dr. Roehling said. This means that much of weight discrimination could fall under sex discrimination, adding:

We are less accepting of overweight women... If women are experiencing workplace discrimination based on their weight 16 times more frequently [overall] than men, employers ought to be very concerned about valid sex discrimination claims.

Among the most ‘obese,’ the incidences of weight discrimination was the same regardless of race. Among Blacks, race or ethnicity is still the most common type of employment discrimination they experienced, but discrimination attributed to race or ethnicity was highest among the most ‘obese’ Blacks — 31.6% among the women and 75% of the men; higher than Blacks of ‘normal’ weight, at 28.7% for women and 44.9% for men.

Some researchers have actually suggested that fat people are less likely than other discriminated groups to perceive their negative treatment as “unfair discrimination,” believing that fat people see it as “their due.” In other words, that fat people had internalized the misconceptions about their size and believe it to be their own fault. But these researchers argued that they found this to not be the case among most fat people. They said that this study provides evidence of the need for employers to be concerned about weight discrimination, adding:

There is evidence that in both an absolute sense and a relative sense, a substantial number of individuals perceive that they are being discriminated against in employment settings because of their weight....

To the extent that employers rely on highly subjective and/or unvalidated hiring practices (e.g., traditional unstructured interviews), the findings provide employers additional reason to be concerned that the full potential of overweight employees is not being utilized, and further, that female applicants and employees are being treated differently on the basis of their weight. Legal concerns aside [not to mention moral], the inclusion of weight-related bias in company diversity programs would seem to be warranted.

For employers who need an impetus to ensure all employees and prospective employees are treated equitably and compassionately and not judged by their appearances, this study provides that.

And as with all discrimination, of course, alleviating it begins with education to correct the nescience behind such prejudices, not trying to change the victims — be it by skin whitening, sex change operations or weight loss.

© 2007 Sandy Szwarc

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