September 23, 2016

Subtle increases in BMI can reduce women’s employment chances

Even slight weight gain can hurt a job seeker’s employment chances—especially a woman’s—reveals a new article in the journal Plos One this month.

Whilst their previous research had confirmed that overweight applicants face discrimination in the job market, a team of Scottish and Canadian researchers wondered whether an increase of just one clothing size could trigger similar prejudice.

A group of 60 men and 60 women were asked to imagine they were company recruiters looking at photos of prospective candidates. They were shown snapshots of four men and four women at various digitally enhanced weights, each face reflecting what doctors consider healthy body weights.

The recruiters were told that the candidates had identical résumés and asked how likely—on a scale of 1 (extremely unlikely) to 7 (extremely likely)—they were to recruit the candidates for customer-facing or no-contact roles.

To the pretend recruiters of both genders, thinner faces registered as being more hirable than the heavier ones, though the effect was stronger for roles that involved customer interaction. The undoctored photos received an average score of 4.84, while the modified, heavier photos scored 4.61.

The disadvantage, however, was stronger for larger women than for larger men, they rated 0.66 lower on average, compared to 0.26 for the men. The artcle’s authors conclude that “even a marginal increase in weight appears to have a negative impact on the hirability ratings of female job applicants.”

One of the article’s authors, Dennis Nickson, stresses that rejecting a candidate because of body weight could mean losing a talented worker. He recommends including weight in diversity training, to help educate managers to recognize and act on potential bias toward job applicants who are not “normal” weight.

Susan L. Averett has written about the labor market outcomes of obesity for IZA World of Labor. She stresses that rising obesity is not only a pressing global public health problem, “there is also substantial evidence that obese people, particularly women, are less likely to be employed and, when employed, are likely to earn lower wages.” Averett notes that “[t]here is some evidence that the lower earnings are a result of discriminatory hiring and sorting into jobs with less customer contact.” She concludes that “[g]overnments and employers have a compelling interest in finding ways to reduce obesity levels and discrimination against obese workers.”

Related articles:
Obesity and labor market outcomes, by Susan L. Averett
Does it pay to be beautiful?, Eva Sierminska
Beauty pays but does investment in beauty?, Soohyung Lee

See here for more article on workplace discrimination