Jul 29, 2023 - Economy

Weight stigma infiltrates work

Illustration of an unequal sign as the clasp on a briefcase.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Discrimination based on body size is common and persistent in American workplaces — but it's largely left out of diversity and inclusion training, and overlooked in employment law.

Why it matters: There's an economic cost to not being thin.

"Weight stigma is present at every stage of the employment cycle," says Rebecca Puhl, a professor at the department of human development at the University of Connecticut. It's harder to get hired, promoted and paid.

  • A Harvard study found that negative workplace attitudes about body size held steady from 2007 to 2020, even as biases on race and gender fell.
  • Even companies that put focus and resources behind inclusivity say weight bias has not been on the radar, The Wall Street Journal reports.
  • Half of managers said they preferred interacting with employees who are not overweight in surveys this year by the Society for Human Resource Management.

Stunning stat: For an obese woman, losing 65 pounds has roughly the same impact on her wages as getting a master's degree, The Economist's Alice Fulwood reports.

Between the lines: Weight discrimination affects women more than men, studies show.

  • "We have very stringent ideals of female physical attractiveness and that idea is thinness," Puhl says. "And when women deviate even a little bit, they start to experience stigma."
  • While both men and women experience discrimination when they reach BMI levels that are classified as obese, men who are overweight don't tend to earn less than their counterparts who are not overweight. Worth noting: BMI is considered an outdated metric that has little to do with health.
  • The same is not true for women, says Jessica Richman, founder of the Visible Collective, which consults companies on supporting workers and consumers who are larger. Just a 10% increase in body mass can result in a 6% cut in a woman's salary, according to research cited by NPR.

Zoom out: Weight bias persists at work because "there are such strong narratives in our society that attribute weight to personal willpower and responsibility," Puhl says.

  • This ignores genetics, environment and other factors that contribute to body size.
  • Unlike other forms of discrimination, bias based on body size is rarely discussed and is legal in much of the U.S., Richman notes.

But policies are changing:

  • A handful of cities — including San Francisco, D.C. and New York City — have passed laws prohibiting size discrimination in the workplace.
  • Michigan has a statewide law banning bias. New Jersey and Massachusetts are considering similar legislation.

"Policy is really important," Puhl says. "In the absence of these laws, it sends the message that it's acceptable to treat people differently because of their size."

Go deeper