Workplace Gender Discrimination and Your BMI
Women, but not men, are paid less when they're considered overweight
It has taken decades to assemble legislation and case law that recognize a woman’s right to demand equal pay for equal work. Even then, it remains, in practice, a long way off: Recent research shows the gender wage gap at just under 20%, with women earning 82 cents for every $1 earned by men as of 2018.
Seemingly still beyond the reach of the law in almost every locale in the U.S., however, is a bizarre and related form of discrimination: paying women less because they're overweight.
You might ask why this constitutes gender discrimination. After all, men are no less likely to struggle with their weight than women, with more than 70% of U.S. adults either overweight or obese. But here’s the catch: Men mostly don’t see the effects in their paycheck, while women do. And, according to a 2019 Supreme Court decision, if an employer will tolerate something in a male employee that it won’t in a female one, it’s discrimination “because of sex.”
Research in the Journal of Human Resources, as early as 2004, found that for white women in the workplace a difference in weight of two standard deviations, or approximately 65 pounds, is associated with a difference in wages of 9%. The effect was only slightly less acute for women of color: Black women’s wages were 5% lower for a similar weight difference; Hispanic women saw a wage decrease of 6.8%.
Being overweight dinged wages as badly as having 1.5 fewer years of education or three fewer years of work experience. For white men, being overweight had an impact “not significantly different from zero,” writes the paper’s author, John Cawley; Black men at higher weights actually earned higher wages; Hispanic men who were overweight suffered a wage penalty.
The fact that most men don’t experience weight-related pay discrimination reveals the several possible “reasons” explored by researchers — “low self-esteem” making women less likely to ask for a raise; hypothetically higher healthcare costs — for what they are: excuses.
Instead, weight discrimination seems to relate to sexist expectations of how women are supposed to look. A National Bureau of Economic Research study found when it comes to discrimination, a woman’s body mass index (BMI) often serves as a proxy for attractiveness. Women’s wages actually seem to start to fall even before conventional cut-offs for “obesity” or “overweight,” while still within the “healthy” weight range. For women, the “optimum” BMI from a wage perspective is 22.8. For men, it’s a significantly higher, and technically overweight, 26.7.
Appearance-based discrimination is nothing new, often bound up with gender expectations. In one 1988 case, a woman up for partner at a major accounting firm was passed over for promotion because her male peers said she was too “macho” and in need of “a course at charm school.” She was advised to “dress more femininely, wear make-up, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry.”
These same expectations are often made worse by racism. Black women who have natural, unstraightened hair, whether curly or in braids, received lower scores on professionalism and competence compared to other types of candidates, a recent Social Psychological and Personality Science journal article reported.
In the case of weight discrimination, roughly 7% makes a profound difference over time. Suppose you earn $45,000 a year. After rent, taxes, the cost of living and everything else, you manage to put $5,000 a year toward retirement — roughly 11% of your earnings. With a rate of return of 7% and no employer matching, you’ll accumulate nearly $650,000 over 35 years. But let’s say you’re subject to a 7% weight penalty and earn $42,000. You’re earning less, but your costs don’t change, giving you just $2,000 to put toward your retirement. Over the same period, your 401(k) will be worth just $195,000.
The kinds of jobs that are especially affected by this weight discrimination, according to a separate paper published in Sociological Forum, are often less well-paying ones. As women move up the ladder, if they’re permitted to, the difference grows less significant. For blue collar and clerical workers, whose wages may be set by the hour, it also doesn’t seem to make a difference.
As a worker, what can you do? A good start: Know what you ought to be paid, so you have a better sense of whether you’re indeed being discriminated against. Sites such as Salary.com, Glassdoor and Salary List help you see what your peers earn.
Only the state of Michigan, and certain cities and local areas, including San Francisco and the District of Columbia, make it explicitly illegal to discriminate against employees based on weight. The Americans with Disabilities Act may offer protection if your weight is related to a health condition or prevents you from performing particular life activities.
Thinking of this as sexual discrimination may ultimately be more effective. In a Supreme Court case decided in June 2020, the court found: “Nor does it matter that, when an employer treats one employee worse because of that individual’s sex, other factors may contribute to the decision. Consider an employer with a policy of firing any woman he discovers to be a Yankees fan. Carrying out that rule because an employee is a woman and a fan of the Yankees is a firing ‘because of sex’ if the employer would have tolerated the same allegiance in a male employee.” The opinion: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/17-1618_hfci.pdf
If you think you’re being discriminated against, begin by taking careful notes. Learn the legal standard in your state. Workplace Fairness is a good website resource, to walk you through your rights, options and best course of action. Sometimes, merely explaining to a boss (or human resources) the facts and your understanding of the law, in a nonconfrontational manner, can get them to recognize the discrimination and address the pay penalty.