Sisters, Sisters

Weight Discrimination, Even Without Excess Weight

Nickson et al. Test FacesWeight-based discrimination at work is a familiar problem for people living with obesity. But new research suggests that the problem might even affect people who don’t have obesity.

Dennis Nickson and colleagues found weight-based discrimination against women even with BMI in a range considered to be healthy. In fact, they found that a woman with BMI of 24 was viewed as less employable than a man with a BMI of 26. Respondents evaluated how likely they would be to hire different applicants with identical qualifications after being shown one of the face pictures on the right. The researchers digitally manipulated the heavier image of each face to simulate a specific BMI.

The differences in these faces are quite subtle. The thinner male face goes with a BMI of 22. The heavier male face represents a BMI of 26. The BMI values for the female faces are 18 and 24.

Now stop to consider that the average BMI in the U.S. is 29. In the UK, where the research was conducted, it’s 27. Clearly, weight bias is a concern for everyone. Nickson offers perspective:

People, in general, still struggle to comprehend that one’s body says nothing about one’s ability to do most jobs. Rejecting a candidate because of body weight could mean letting a talented worker slip away.

Including weight in things like diversity training could be an important first step in educating managers about the need to recognize and act on potential bias towards job applicants who are not “normal” weight.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this study was the finding of even greater weight discrimination in customer-facing jobs. The rationalization that customers will object to the appearance of a heavier employee is no more acceptable than using customer preferences to justify racial discrimination.

These are spurious arguments. Such rationales were once used to exclude women from jobs as airline pilots. No more. Competence, professionalism, and performance matter. Physical characteristics do not – except when we tolerate such discrimination.

Click here for the study by Nickson et al and here for more from the Washington Post.

Sisters, Sisters. Photograph © Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka / flickr

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September 23, 2016