Skinny Women, Fat Paychecks: Weight Discrimination in the Office

SCORds via Flickr
SCORds via Flickr

By Briana North

Bad news, ladies: we not only have to worry about the ongoing gender wage gap, it turns out we have to worry about a weight wage gap as well. Oh, and what’s more, that weight discrimination is inextricably linked to gender.

Prejudice and Pounds

Sadly, weight-based discrimination is hardly new and hardly surprising. My previous boss, for example, frequently overlooked overweight applicants. Although I fall smack-dab in the middle of the ever-debated “average” range for BMI, I was probably the “biggest” woman on staff. (On the other hand, I was a twig compared to the hulking men on staff.) Even with my own weight-privileged tunnel vision, my boss’s predisposition for skinny ladies was easy to spot and hard to swallow.

It sounds crazy, but it seems that employers still believe weight is an accurate reflection of competency and work ethic. Overweight employees are perceived as less capable, less disciplined, and less suited for leadership positions. (Of course, these phrases are just the PC substitutions for preferred slurs like “lazy” or “gluttonous.”)

Weight and the Wage Gap

These terrible prejudices translate into a startling wage gap. A study led by Timothy A. Judge (University of Florida) revealed that women who are well below the average weight are paid roughly $22,000 more than their “normal weight” counterparts. You heard me: skinny women make about $22,000 more. That’s embarrassingly close to my yearly salary.

While model-thin women are paid far more than Plain-Janes, overweight or obese women are paid up to $19,000 less than average-weight women. For those who are too busy choking back expletives to do the math: that means the skinny-to-fat pay gap can stretch over $40,000.

Of course, wage gaps are only one of many slaps to the face overweight women experience in the workplace. Not only are they paid less, but overweight women are also less likely to receive the big promotions. Less than 25% of female CEOs can be considered overweight or obese. That may seem like a small figure, but it is actually a large sum when less than 5% of top CEOs (male or female) can be classified as obese.

To make matters worse, obese women aren’t merely denied advancement; they are also frequently denied employment opportunities, full stop. Don’t pass Go, don’t collect $200. Just like my boss of yore, many employers dismiss applicants based on body image alone, ignoring critical factors like education, experience, and work ethic.

And if an application requires a photo? Forget about it. Obese applicants may not make it pass the initial resume skimming, thanks once again to ridiculous stereotypes.

Gender and Weight

In case you missed it, it seems that weight-based discrimination is hopelessly intertwined with our culture’s toxic gender stereotypes.

True, men also face strange and discriminatory pay gaps due to weight. However, male employees are actually punished financially for being underweight. While Judge found that underweight women earn at least $15,000 more than women of average weight, he also found that underweight men earn upwards of $8,000 less than their average-weight counterparts.

That’s right: underweight women are paid more and underweight men are paid less. Meanwhile, overweight male employees do not suffer anywhere near the same pay drop-off as their female colleagues.

Why is that? One only has to look as far as cultural expectations. Women of average or above-average weight are routinely punished for failing to live up to pop culture standards of beauty. How is that fair, when the “ideal woman,” as presented by Hollywood, is not an accurate representation of the average American woman? Men, on the other hand, are condemned for being underweight, as skinny men are perceived as weak, effeminate, and a host of other gender-charged insults.

It’s almost impossible to mention weight discrimination without discussing gender discrimination. The media bombards us with retouched images of rail-thin women and beefy men, neither of which are the norm in society at large. Unfortunately, the idolization of underweight women feeds the false perception that the Kiera Knightley body type (with larger breasts via Photoshop, of course) is both the norm and the ideal. As a result, average-weight women are severely penalized for their failure to live up to that unrealistic standard.

Average-weight men, on the other hand, do not experience the same discrimination. Underweight men are penalized and considered weaker than their average counterparts, a weakness that is frequently described in gender-laced derogatory terms—like effeminate—meant to reinforce male superiority. At the same time, overweight males do not suffer the same as their female counterparts. not sure you believe me? Try this on for size: 45 to 61% of male CEOs are classified as overweight, compared to the 5 to 22% of female CEOs.

What conclusions can be drawn from such findings? Unfortunately, the only conclusion is that the gender pay gap is more outrageous and punishing than originally thought. It’s 2014 and white women are still only making 78% of what white men are, which has to do with gender (not profession). Not only are women on average paid significantly less than men, women’s wages are also subjected to greater pound-to-dollar penalties. This means that closing the wage gap will require more than simply acknowledging equality between the sexes. It will also require employers to abandon sexist and unrealistic weight biases.

A girl can dream, though. And who knows? Perhaps one day employers will adopt an imaginative, completely radical solution where applicants are hired and employees paid based on work experience, work ethic, and job performance, rather than unrelated factors like skin color, gender, or weight.

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