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A weighty issue for women: weight bias in the workplace

By Dennis Nickson - Posted on 15 September 2016

Even small weight gains can affect a woman’s employment chances – that’s the conclusion of research carried out by Strathclyde Business School’s Professor Dennis Nickson, who hopes studies like this one might discourage bias in employers.

There have been numerous research studies which provide convincing evidence that overt obesity and overweight are linked to reduced employment chances. That much, sadly, seems to be true.

Recently published research I carried out with colleagues at St Andrews University looked at this issue from a slightly different angle but with equally depressing results.

We took photographs of four men and four women, all with BMIs in the healthy/normal range, and used specialised software to add weight to their faces. By doing so, we created two versions of each person, a ‘normal’ one and a ‘heavier’ one. But where the men’s adapted faces put them in the overweight BMI range, the ‘heavier’ women’s faces were still within the healthy range.

We showed these photographs to 120 participants and asked them to rate each face on employability across a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being the lowest and 7 the highest. Participants were told to assume these were job applicants who were all equally qualified for the position in question, and we also included ‘diversion’ faces so the participants did not realise this study was concerned solely about weight.

We were examining how “subtle” but healthy weight gain (a marginal increase still within normal healthy BMI range) could reduce hire-ability ratings for female applicants against the backdrop of significant and unhealthy weight gain for their male counterparts. And we looked at whether this “subtle” weight gain varied for female job candidates in customer-facing and non-customer-facing jobs in the service sector.

Sadly, the study suggested that for women, being heavier, but still within a healthy BMI, did indeed impact on whether they were offered a job or not. The results of this experiment are deeply unsettling from the viewpoint of gender equality in the workplace.

My research on ‘aesthetic labour’ has shown that certain firms do employ people who look a certain way as they believe that fits with their business image and will help them sell more or attract more customers.

This latest research paints an even more downbeat picture – not only do female job applicants on the upper end of the medically healthy BMI range find it more difficult to get hired, but they are less likely to be hired than male job applicants - even when the male applicants are overtly and medically overweight.

This research shows the challenges that women (and to a lesser extent men) face in what appears to be a highly “weight-conscious” labour market. Just a small simulated increase in someone’s BMI - even within the healthy range – causes the chance of being hired to fall for a woman, something which can impact severely on women’s overall life chances.

The “heavier” female faces were viewed more negatively than the “heavier” male faces, and the “heavier” female faces were also evaluated even more negatively in customer-facing jobs than non-customer-facing jobs, whereas for the “heavier” male faces - overtly in the overweight BMI range - there was no statistically significant difference by job type.

What’s more, whether the hirer is male or female makes no difference - women respondents in our study were equally likely to rate “heavy but healthy” female job applicants just as negatively as the male respondents.

This situation is unlikely to change any time soon, and in both the UK and the US, weight is not a protected characteristic in fair employment laws. So women in similar scenarios to those tested in our study would have no recourse to the law.

However, regardless of how ‘stalled’ this situation seems to be, the powerful societal standards of beauty should be actively worked against, rather than just accepted as a matter of fact.

It is important to recognise that organisations and managers should be proactively addressing this issue.

The onus should not be on individuals who are perfectly healthy but not ‘thin’. It is very difficult at an individual level to combat such negative stereotypes beyond making the obvious point that they are within a perfectly healthy weight range.

Instead, organisations can think about things like their marketing and branding strategies and of course seek to educate managers who are responsible for hiring employees.

With regard to marketing we cite a study in the article which looked at over 100 images used in online promotional videos of hotel staff. Virtually all (over 90%) of these images showed employees with a slim build, with only 9% showing a slightly larger employee, usually a man. Showing greater variety of body sizes in advertising and marketing material would reflect the reality of who organisations are employing and could potentially lead to less discrimination. More specifically, organisations need to take responsibility to portray positive images of ‘heavier’ employees as competent and knowledgeable.

It is also important to educate managers about how they may be biased against heavier people. This bias could be unconscious bias and managers may not be deliberately discriminating against heavier employees. Including weight in things like diversity training could be an important first step in educating managers about the need to recognise and act on potential bias towards job applicants who are not ‘normal’ weight.

Hopefully continuing to talk about studies like this will shine a light upon the unrealistic challenges that women face in a highly weight-conscious labour market - and ultimately change our workplaces for the better.

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