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How the workplace is biased towards thin people

Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·5-min read
Vector illustration of diverse standing cartoon women in office outfits. Isolated on white.
Women are far more likely than men to be judged on the way they look at work. Photo: Getty

Size discrimination extends far beyond the reigns of Hollywood or the fashion industry. Despite efforts by activists to tackle the stigma faced by women, it’s a common problem in the workplace. And the impact of fatphobia, research shows, can be devastating.

Women are far more likely to be judged on the way they look at work. And it’s not just their clothes, hair and make-up that is scrutinised, but their weight too. The effect of weight discrimination is far-reaching, affecting women’s mental health, pay, career progression and opportunities in the workplace.

“Some would refer to this as ‘thin privilege’ where certain body types are preferred by employers. It’s an area which would benefit from further research, especially to understand how thin privilege might intersect with disability and race for women,” says Kate Sang, a professor of gender and employment studies at Heriot-Watt University.

“The evidence across many countries suggests that for women, gender and body size are more likely to be associated with experiences of discrimination in the workplace, and that discrimination becomes more stark the more a woman is perceived to be ‘overweight’ or have a larger body.”

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According to research by LinkedIn, discrimination regarding weight is common in UK workplaces. Workers classed as obese are paid £1,940 ($2,457) less per year than their colleagues, with women classed as “overweight” or “obese” — according to their BMI — receiving £8,919 less on average each year than their male coworkers.

Researchers also found that almost a quarter (21%) of workers who are overweight felt they had been passed over for a job or a promotion because of their weight. In addition, more than half of those classed as plus-sized said they felt they had been left out of a team because of their weight.

And size discrimination doesn’t just affect women once they’re in a job. It also makes them less likely to be hired in the first place.

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In a separate study by Sheffield Hallam University, participants were asked to evaluate candidates for different types of jobs based on their hypothetical CVs and photos featuring people of different weights. The results revealed that participants rated the obese job seekers as less suitable for employment, compared with slimmer candidates — and obese women were the least likely to be given jobs.

The researchers suggest the problem is more complex than originally believed, however. It wasn’t just a woman’s weight that affected her employment per se, but the work she did to manage her weight. Or more accurately, her perceived management of her weight.

Essentially, the discrimination of larger women in the workplace is also likely to do with the stereotyping of obese people as “less physically capable and slothful,” the Sheffield study found.

Further research confirms the destructive impact of these stereotypes. In a survey of 500 hiring professionals by the jobs site Fairygodboss, who were shown a photo of an overweight woman and asked if they would consider employing her.

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Only 15.6% of them said they would — and 20% said they thought she was “lazy.” Furthermore, just 18% of respondents said she had leadership potential, while 21% described her as “unprofessional.”

“Overweight women may need to emphasise their work ethic, professionalism and leadership skills more so than other candidates in order to level the playing field,” the report noted.

It’s well documented that women are subject to constant scrutiny when it comes to their bodies. Thanks to the media and societal expectations regarding gender, they are under pressure to conform to certain beauty ideals. Those who don’t fit these narrow perimeters are often treated unfairly, including in the workplace.

“However, the picture is quite complicated,” Sang adds. “Research by University of Strathclyde Business School Professor Dennis Nickson and colleagues showed that a bias towards ‘thin’ women existed, even where women were within so-called healthy BMI ranges. I.e. they were not considered to be ‘overweight’.

“From an academic perspective one way of explaining this is a term called aesthetic labour, which is the work done by employees to manage their bodies so they fit the image their employer wants to project to customers. This can include weight,” she explains.

“Some feminists have also argued that the pressure for women to be ‘thin’ is a pressure to take up as little space as possible, including at work.”

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The problem is compounded further by the lack of protections against weight discrimination in the UK. Unfair treatment because someone is overweight or because of the way they look is not specifically protected under the Equality Act 2010.

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) suggests that the treatment would have to link to one of the specifically protected characteristics under the Act, such as their sex or a disability, for it to amount to discrimination. Because of this, majority of size discrimination goes unchecked — and the responsibility to protect workers against stigma or discrimination lies solely with employers.

“Employers need to ensure obese employees are not subjected to offensive comments or behaviour because of their weight and that obese job applicants are not discriminated against because of their weight,” the Acas spokesperson adds.

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