Should weight be added to employment discrimination standards?

Obese people have a hard time getting equal treatment in the workplace. That much has been known since a study proved it about a decade ago. But now a new study shows that the situation is much worse for women than men, the Washington Post reports.

The study, from Vanderbilt University Law School, looked at the correlation between weight classes of people and two types of jobs they might hold: “personal interaction jobs” and “physical activity jobs.”

The former consists of position with high communications such as sales positions. The latter included home health aid, day care and food preparation positions.

Women, the data showed, are increasingly less likely to work the higher paying jobs and increasingly more likely to work the lower paying jobs as they become heavier. Men, on the other hand, see no such gradual effect. “No matter the occupation, obese men seem to do just as well” as normal-weight men,” (Jennifer) Shinall (the study’s author) said. “That’s just not the case for obese women.”

The reasons for the disproportionate effect that women’s weight appears to have on their employment are unclear. Beauty, or attractiveness, have long been tied to better pay, both among men and women. Everything from one’s height to one’s hair color and fitness have been found to affect one’s career. Economist Daniel Hamermesh, who is well-versed on the topic, has written a book about the correlation between attractiveness and compensation, appropriately titled “Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People are More Successful.”

The role that appearance plays in determining one’s pay, while present for sexes, has in some cases been proven to be more pronounced for men than women, at least by Hamermesh. But in many others, it’s been the reverse, said Shinall. “There’s been quite a bit of research in the more general appearance context that suggests a woman’s appearance is more important on the job than a man’s,” she said. There’s also the possibility that this particular gender pay gap is an extension of the more general pay gap that persists between men and women in the United States, which has been as pronounced as it has been persistent.

So what?

Shinall’s reason for doing the research is a legal one. The 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin. She’s considering whether weight should be a sixth category.

“The data is highly suggestive of job discrimination against obese individuals, especially against obese women,” she said in a Vanderbilt article on the research.

According the Vanderbilt, Shinall’s background piqued her interest on the question. She used to be a dancer and saw how opportunities evaporated as weight increased.

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    At some point, the farther you move the line the less meaning it has.

  • Robert Moffitt

    As much as I hate to say it, I think Kevin is right.

  • John Peschken

    Problem one is deciding who is ugly or fat enough to qualify for the protected class.

  • milojo

    My husband’s cousin is in sales. He says you can be fat or bald, but you can’t be both.

  • Jeff

    You can’t change your race, skin color (unless you are Michael Jackson), national origin, age or gender. Your weight is something you *can* change, so it shouldn’t be protected like things you can’t choose or change. But, on the other hand, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act amended the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, which is clearly something that someone chooses and can change. So maybe protecting overweight people *should* be done, just as protecting pregnant women is done. But, as others have pointed out, how one decides if someone is fat enough to be protected would be very hard to define. I guess I lean towards no adding weight to the list of protected classes.

  • kelly kolb

    Given the incidence of obesity in this country (34.9% or 78.6 million people according to the CDC and JAMA), expanding Title VII protections to the obese would swallow the ever shrinking general rule that employers can hire and fire who they wish for any reason. The next study we are likely to see is that brown-eyed people are disproportionately discriminated against and thus should be protected by Title VII. Increasingly, employers are likely to be sued for any decision they make since almost every employee is in a protected class. It is any wonder why American jobs are being sent offshore?

  • Nicholas Kraemer

    Correlation doesn’t automatically equal causation. Sales of ice cream tend to rise along with shark attacks, in Florida, but that doesn’t mean that one causes the other.

  • gregstaffa

    There are different levels of Weight Discrimination. I was injured on the job while working for Northwest Airlines. For 9 months it was a work comp. One day the company sent me to a new Dr. He basically said “You’re fat any injury is your fault.” The company agreed and voided my contract and sent me packing. This happened as the US went into a financial nose dive. I ended up spending the next three years homeless. A judge would later rule that I my weight had nothing to do with my injury, that the company offered no medical evidence and that they conclusion lacked logic and common sense. And yet I lost everything. Discrimination is a very broad term that can apply to many situation. Northwest Airlines used weight to get out of my contract to avoid a work comp. To me that is weight discrimination. Discrimination that cost me everything.