Weight Discrimination In The Workplace: The Troubling Lack Of Plus-Sized CEOs

In a recent study on hiring bias by the job-reviewing platform Fairygodboss, a picture of a heavier woman was shown to 500 recruiters. The survey respondents described her as friendly, confident, and professional, but the big takeaway is that just 15.2% said they would hire her (20% said she was “lazy”).
That kind of data may have far reaching consequences. If plus-sized women aren't being hired, they can't get (or won't) promoted either. At the executive level, there aren’t many plus-sized CEOs — male or female — at America’s Fortune 500 companies, and that hunch becomes a lot more definite with data: There’s a handful of academic studies that suggest that not only is weight discrimination in the workplace a prevalent reality, it affects who ends up at the top of America’s corporate ladder.
On paper, America’s CEOs traditionally have at least a university degree, if not an MBA, along with industry reputations and references that sing. Among the personal qualities a company considers, the ideal CEO has to look the part. But what does that mean exactly? To look like a leader? Despite Silicon Valley’s preference for hoodies, company executives are still expected to have looks that convey confidence and strength. The style of female executives has certainly evolved over the years, from stiff suits to jewel tone ensembles along with a cottage industry of image consultants who advise on clothes, makeup, and hair for powerful women.
This is the decade where female executives land photoshoots in Vogue and Fortune — look at Marisa Mayer, Yahoo’s former CEO, who went from power suit to a royal blue Michael Kors dress and stilettos in the 2009 September issue. Or Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi with her signature colourful scarves. Even Sheryl Sandberg attended the World Economic Forum in a matching oxblood dress and heels. Highly successful women often say they want to wear things that make them feel powerful. There’s a look: It’s not trendy, and it’s definitely not from a fast-fashion retailer. It’s from Stella McCartney or Theory, and it screams success.

The C-Suite Is Thin

Thanks to our endless fascination with those in power — and perhaps because so many middle managers and upper management employees are angling for a spot in the C-suite — there’s a seemingly endless supply of books, studies, and advice on just how to get a seat at the top table. In that research is a niche devoted to how people in corporate leadership tend to look, two things are clear: First, there are few women. Even as studies show that companies with female executives are more profitable, just 32 women, or 6.4%, are on the 2017 Fortune 500’s list.
Secondly: Very few female CEOs in America are plus-sized.
“There's definitely a bias against bigger bodies. No question about that,” says Alexandra Waldman, the co-founder and creative director at Universal Standard, a minimalist clothing brand that caters to plus-sized professional women. Waldman identifies as plus-sized, although she doesn’t like being labeled. She worked in investment banking before starting her own company, and says that in her experience, appearances are a part of the equation. It was extremely difficult for her to feel powerful when she wasn't able to dress the part, and that's one of the reasons she started her clothing company.
“There's definitely a certain look, and if you're going to get into the race then you want to look like a winning horse,” she explains. “It's inevitable, you're going to draw conclusions about somebody's value, somebody's place in the hierarchy.”

There's definitely a certain look, and if you're going to get into the race then you want to look like a winning horse.

Alexandra Waldman
Patricia Roehling, a professor of psychology at Hope College, used photos of America’s top executives to quantify the matter. “I noticed there were very few overweight people in positions of prominence, like elected officials and CEOs,” said Roehling. She found a stark underrepresentation of overweight men and women among top executives in the U.S. For women, Roehling’s study estimates that only 5-22% of CEOs are plus, despite that 67% of women in America identify as a size 14 or larger. The effect is also gendered: that range is 45-61% for male CEOs.
The implication of her study is that weight discrimination is particularly punishing for female executives, and that’s even more concerning as these women already have to contend with the corporate “glass ceiling.” While plus-sized celebrities — like Oprah — can leverage their star power for a place in the C-suite, the vast majority of plus-sized women don't have have that particular advantage.
“This research suggests that [companies] see people who are overweight or obese as undisciplined, not healthy, lazy ... but some of our other research has shown that these stereotypes are largely untrue," says Roehling.

The Weight Discrimination Wealth Gap

The stereotypes around plus-sized men and women are largely negative in the workplace, especially in an era when “healthy” looking executives reads as more competent. “It is likely that people — leaders — make judgments about people’s traits depending if they are overweight or underweight, and that this applied more to women than men,” explains Daniel Cable, a professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School.
It’s not just those who want to be executives who are punished as a result of these biases. In Cable’s research with Timothy Judge, he found a wage penalty for gaining weight. Looking at the pay and weight data for a cohort of 12,000 Americans over the three decades, they found that gaining 25 pounds for a woman meant an average decrease in salary of $13,000 if the woman was already above average weight, and over $15,000 if she was below average weight.
This has significant implications on wealth: “This means that, all else equal, a woman who is average weight earns $389,300 less across a 25-year career than a woman who is 25 pounds below average weight.” Long story short: Thin women make a lot more money than their plus-sized counterparts.
“These pervasive negative stereotypes also appear to be held by employers, accounting for the widespread obesity discrimination that has been documented. Of course, many of society’s expectations for women are unobtainable,” Cable says.
These stereotypes chalk up to a set of illogical proxies: Thin people have more self-control and discipline, so they’re supposedly nicer to work with and they work harder. Roehling’s research has suggested that overweight individuals are less desirable as employees, coworkers, or bosses because of the harmful assumptions people make. This bias is particularly harmful in the workplace, because it means that plus-sized women — regardless of their ability — will struggle to climb the corporate ladder.
But as with any kind of discrimination, it’s hard on the individual level to confirm (and prove in a court of law) that it’s preventing you from getting promoted. Waldman says that while she worries about it, it’s hard to tell if it’s happening to you. “It's very difficult to be objective when you want to understand whether there's something other than your talent that has kept you back,” said Waldman.

This bias is particularly harmful in the workplace, because it means that plus-sized women — regardless of their ability — will struggle to climb the corporate ladder.

But Is It Legal?

Unlike discrimination based on race or gender, weight discrimination is, for the most part, legal in the U.S. Generally, courts have ruled that appearance discrimination — that is, hiring someone because they're more attractive, in better shape, taller, or thinner — is perfectly legal.
"It might be unfair, but it's not covered,” says Marshall Tanick, an employment attorney in Minneapolis, MN.
Tanick says that unless there’s a medical basis for obesity resulting in discrimination, it’s hard to argue for it under the U.S.’s current employment laws. Plus, most employees who face weight discrimination are reluctant to speak up: Tanick says that there have been very few cases litigated on this kind of discrimination. Two in recent memory involved service staff: In Michigan, two waiters at Hooters sued the restaurant for telling them to lose weight (the case was settled out of court). In 2013, 22 waitresses brought a weight discrimination case against Atlantic City’s Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. That case was dismissed by the presiding judge.
“A lot of people don't want to raise the issue, it can be embarrassing to them. It can be something they don't want other people to know about,” says Tanick. “It's kind of an invisible issue; it's much more subtle than a race or gender issue. It's not transparent, and it doesn't come up that often.”
There is currently only one state in the U.S. where weight discrimination is illegal: Michigan.

How Can Progress Be Made?

If there’s no legal protection, what can women do? There are two camps when it comes to what’s to be done about weight discrimination at work. The first is obvious: Make it illegal. While there’s no federal law protecting employees from weight discrimination, there could be some support for legislation.
“There is consistently high levels of public support for legislation that would prohibit weight discrimination in the workplace — e.g., a law that would make it illegal for employers to refuse to hire someone, or assign them lower salary, or terminate their employment on the basis of body weight,” says Rebecca Puhl, the director of research and Weight Stigma Initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut.
Puhl says that in one survey, 78% of Americans said they’d support this type of law. And she believes that legislation is important. “Without legislation, the message is that weight discrimination is not a legitimate form of prejudice, and it's very easy for it to remain unchecked. Putting policies in place that specifically call out this form of unfair treatment is critical.”
Without legal protection, there are still battles to be won. The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), a nonprofit that trains some 20,000 leaders annually, suggest a couple solutions to overcome the pervasive bias that overweight leaders aren’t hardworking, energetic, or sociable.
One option is for the CEOs to call it out and correct the stereotype. In other words, I’m here already. My weight doesn’t have anything on my abilities. “Executives could emphasise their ambition, drive, and energy in their interactions with others to alleviate any unwarranted negative perceptions.” That option seems like a difficult one, particularly because most plus-size CEOs would rather avoid any mention on the subject of weight.
Of course, there’s a lot that companies can do, too. The one recommendations researchers and experts can all agree on is instituting hiring and promotion practices that are objective and bias-free. “There's a lot of clear evidence that to stop discrimination against weight, gender, race, the best thing an employer can do is have a very structured procedure for who you're going to hire and promote so that everybody is evaluated on the same job-related characteristics,” says Roehling.
Waldman, who’s now an executive of her own company, has advice that women (and people of color) know well. In the face of prejudice, just don’t give an inch: “The way you overcome that is the way you overcome any prejudice, you work harder and smarter than everyone else and then no one can say anything. You erase those prejudices by not giving them a single nail to hang them on. You just do better, and more, and show everyone you're more than capable.”
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