Workplace discrimination based on a whole host of factors – from gender and race to religion and marital status – is illegal in the UK. But it seems women's body size is fair game: it's not against the law for workers to be overlooked and paid less because of their weight, and research suggests employers are exploiting this loophole.
According to new figures from LinkedIn, weight discrimination is rife in UK workplaces – and the situation is worst for women. Workers classed as obese are paid £1,940 less per year than their colleagues, with women classed as 'overweight' or 'obese' (according to their BMI) receiving a staggering £8,919 less on average each year than their male counterparts.
Almost a quarter (21%) of workers classed as overweight, and nearly a third (31%) of those who were obese, felt they'd been overlooked for a job, promotion or pay rise because of their size, while more than half (53%) of plus-size workers said they felt left out of the team because of their weight.
Women are more likely to feel uncomfortable at work because of their size than men: 39% compared to 28% of men, and more women (38%) said their weight has been detrimental to their workplace confidence and performance, compared to just a quarter (26%) of men.
Here, three women reveal the truth about what it's like being plus-size in the workplace.
"In one of my first jobs out of university, I was bullied quite badly by another plus-size woman, who was very vocal about what I ate. She’d comment on what I was eating whenever we went out for a team lunch, which made me feel extremely self-conscious, to the point where I’d prefer to eat nothing at all. After returning from a business trip and handing my receipts in for expenses, she also read out everything I’d eaten for lunch and dinner to the entire office, commenting on the fat and salt content of everything and laughing at me for being 'greedy'. At the time, I was very self-conscious about my weight and my looks and it definitely contributed to having to eventually leave that job due to suffering from clinical depression and anxiety.
I was turned down for a publishing job because they felt 'my personality was too large for the organisation'.
"I’ve also found the prevalence of diet culture in all the jobs I’ve worked in to be extremely difficult. One colleague once mentioned that the worst thing someone could tell them was 'that they were fat’, and I had to have a conversation with them about why this wasn’t an appropriate thing to say in front of a fat woman. It’s very triggering to hear people around you say that they’re going to 'treat themselves' when there’s cake or sweets available or that they’re having a 'cheat day'. The implication is that they’re worried that eating the wrong thing is going to make them look like me.
"I’ve spent most of my career working in the media and advertising industries and I’ve found that there’s a definite preference there for women who are young, thin and pretty. I’d find that (male) creative directors would often court the opinions of others who were less experienced than me because they were half my weight. Before I worked for myself, I do think my weight negatively impacted people’s opinions of me. I was once turned down for a publishing job because they felt 'my personality was too large for the organisation'.
"It’s less acceptable for women to be plus-size in an office and you have to work twice as hard to prove yourself. You’re also expected to dress and look a certain way and take more 'pride' in your appearance to be taken seriously, whereas with a plus-size man, it’s 'just the way they are'. In one of my old jobs, a plus-size man would regularly eat a Papa John’s meal deal at his desk every day. The one time I ate some chips at my desk, one of my colleagues tutted at me about how 'greasy' they were. One of the nice things about working from home for myself is that no one will ever judge me for deciding to have a bag of crisps at 4pm."
Stephanie Yeboah, 29, from London, is a digital PR strategist and plus-size style blogger. She has written about her experiences of workplace discrimination based on her size.
"There have been a few occasions that I've felt I was discriminated against because of my size. On one such occasion, new uniforms were being introduced into our department and the largest size they went up to was a size 16. I asked a female manager if it would be okay for me to buy my own clothing to wear to work that resembled the uniform (it was monochrome), and she laughed, said 'no', and went on to say that 'maybe if I lost weight, I could fit in with everyone else'. I said nothing at the time as I was quite shocked, but I do remember shedding a tear or two as I felt that I had been singled out and made to feel 'less than'.
"I've most definitely been held back at work because of my size. Especially in client/public facing roles, I've been made to feel I don’t have the right 'look' to represent the company.
"I do think that plus-size women get a harsher deal in the workplace than men, but that’s only because women in general are policed more than men in our society. The treatment of plus-size men in society isn’t as harsh at all, and they are given a lot more respect and authority than women."
Bethany Rutter, 29, from London, does social media for a women's plus-size fashion brand.
"Like a lot of fat women, I can't specifically articulate tangible ways I've been held back at work, like being passed over for a job or a promotion or not given a pay rise, but I can say that the atmosphere of a workplace has made me feel that fat people are inherently not taken seriously or respected as much as thin people. It's similar to a lot of discrimination in that even if you can't pinpoint specific instances, if everyone's always talking about diets or how 'fat' they feel when they're not, it makes you, as a fat woman, understand that they have bought into all the negative stereotypes around fat bodies.
Given that one of the key perceived traits of fat people is that we're lazy and/or stupid, these are traits that don't mesh well with perceived professionalism.
"Why, then, would you expect to be taken seriously by them if you exemplify everything they go out of their way to avoid? Given that one of the key perceived traits of fat people is that we're lazy and/or stupid, these are traits that don't mesh well with perceived professionalism, so it's no surprise that this climate converts into lower salaries, fewer promotions and fewer jobs for fat women.
"In a way, I've held myself back at work as much as anything – I'd have loved to work in fashion or fashion journalism, but when I interned at a women's magazine when I was at university, I overheard a conversation between two journalists where one said that before she came home from holiday in India, she'd decided she hadn't lost enough weight on the holiday – as if that's what holidays are for – so she licked the bottom of her flip flop to make herself sick. It made me realise it wasn't an environment I was ever going to be allowed to thrive in as a fat woman.
"I think a lot about the threshold for how much effort plus-size women have to make to be perceived as attractive, and in this respect, how much higher the bar is for fat women to be perceived as professional. I also think lad culture and banal misogyny in workplaces mean that fat men are more likely to be grouped in with 'the lads' than seen as the same as a plus-size woman."