Me Too: Weight Discrimination Is Stubborn

A new perspective in Obesity reminds us that weight discrimination at work is stubborn. Worse yet, it’s perfectly legal. Shreya Sabharwal and colleagues from Harvard describe the situation:

Even though weight discrimination has a negative impact on people’s health and wellness and results in unequal academic and job opportunities, there is only one state in the United States, Michigan, that has an anti weight discrimination law.

Thus, writes Charlotte Morabito, weight discrimination permeates U.S. workplaces. So the work to push back against weight-based discrimination is piecemeal. Six cities in the U.S. have laws to prevent it. Litigation results, based on gender and disability protections. But it’s tedious. Progress is slow. Winning is hard.

The Link to Gender

Women with obesity face more of a penalty at work than men. Despite many years of hard work, discrimination is stubborn. A recent study in the International Journal of Obesity found that the odds of weight-based discrimination were almost three times higher for women.

This is a longstanding problem, an artifact that hangs on from old, offensive norms. It used to be that airlines would fire flight attendants who did not lose weight quickly enough after having a baby. After maternity leave, they had to weight in before they could get any work assignments. If judged overweight, they had to submit to repeated weighings. Lose 1.5 pounds per week or else.

It took a 17-year legal battle between American Airlines and the flight attendants union to obtain a bit of progress. American agreed in 1991 that “female flight attendants need not always weigh what they did when they were 21.”

Yes, progress is slow. And the foot dragging is all about sexist stereotypes about how women must look. For men, the standards are different – more about competence, less about appearance.

Economic Stupidity

The resistance to doing the right thing on weight discrimination is frustrating. Discrimination based on weight, just like anything else that’s irrelevant to performance, is a waste of human potential. Taking full advantage of human potential in a diverse workforce pays financial dividends.

But the depressing truth is that a person of size will often feel undervalued in the workplace. In a recent thesis on this issue, one subject described her experiences:

There are assumptions made about your class, your background, your education, your capacity. I always feel that I’m underestimated.

Tolerable No More

It’s time to put such pointless discrimination behind us. Writing for the St Louis University Law Journal, Bre Wexler sums it up:

Organizations have both a legal duty and an ethical duty to hire the most qualified candidate for a position, regardless of appearance- or gender-based characteristics, and most civil rights legislation has been enacted with this purpose in mind.

Hiring based on stereotypes hurts the organizations that practice it as well as the people they exclude.

Click here for the perspective by Sabharwal et al. For Kate Godfree’s recent thesis on obesity stigma in the workplace, click here.

Presenting, photograph by Jay Baker for Maryland GovPics / flickr

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September 20, 2020