You Better Shape Up! Does Weight Affect Your Earnings?

You probably know the media’s standard of attractiveness is thinner for women than for men. It's also thinner than most of the female population, and can border on anorexic. In our society, weight matters. But did you know that employers have internalized this idea as well? A few extra pounds could lead to a lighter paycheck.

People see obese individuals as less desirable subordinates, coworkers and bosses. According to some studies, 60 percent of overweight women and 40 percent of overweight men report that they have been victims of discrimination in the workplace.

A new study by Timothy Judge and Daniel Cable suggests there is a relationship between gender, obesity, and earnings. They measured the weight of more than 12,000 Americans at 15 points over a 25 year period. They also collected demographic, behavioral, and job information:

• gender, height, age, and race;
• educational attainment;
• childhood socioeconomic status;
• smoking and drinking behavior;
• marital status, spouse’s earnings, the presence of children and maternity leave;
• hours worked, job tenure, public or private sector job, and job complexity;
• perceived health problems and self-esteem.

Judge and Cable found an interesting pattern when they studied this data: after controlling for demographic and job characteristics, there is a statistically significant relationship between weight and earnings. This relationship shows a gender double-standard. Heavier men tend to earn more than lighter men, but heavier women tend to earn less than lighter women.

The relationship between earnings and weight changes is even more surprising. Weight gain in men leads to increases in pay. Men are rewarded for gaining weight up to the point of obesity. In contrast, weight gain in women leads to decreases in pay. Women are penalized for gaining weight. The "pay penalty" is harshest for very thin women.

Simply put, as men gain weight their earnings tend to increase, and when they lose weight, their earnings tend to decrease. The opposite is true for women. Women's earnings decrease when they gain weight, and when they lose weight, their earnings tend to increase. But the magnitude of earnings changes for men and women are quite different, as shown in the chart below.

This relationship could be indicative of weight discrimination in employment decisions, which is showing itself in earnings differences.

Is there a need for new legislation addressing weight discrimination? Rebecca Puhl and Chelsea Heuer surveyed 1,000 Americans on this question. According to their survey, 65 percent of men and 81 percent of women support laws banning weight discrimination in the workplace. Refusal to hire, denying promotions, and terminating employees based on weight received the most support.

It remains to be seen whether any new legislation designed to combat wage discrimination will be proposed. The research on weight discrimination poses some tough questions, and you can be sure that this issue will continue to be an increasingly hot topic of conversation in the future.