Women, Weight and Employability

I came across this study a few days ago.

Research into the impact on employability of being overweight on both men and women.

Now as a former Big Girl this caught my interest. When I was overweight I never felt that it impacted my ability to do my job, even if it did impact my ability to get up and down the stairs to the office. But who knows what others might have thought about me, what opportunities passed me by unknowingly? What impressions, false or true, others held about me and my size?

Here are the key findings from this and other similar research:

  •  Overweight candidates suffer from bias in an experimental job interview situations.
  • Fat persons are less highly rated on employability than normal weight applicants.
  • Obese candidates were not only perceived to be less qualified than non-obese applicants but were also less likely to be hired than those of ‘normal’ weight.
  • There is a gender dimension to this bias, in that women suffer significantly more prejudice than men – something that appears more pronounced in customer facing roles.

HR types reading this blog will most likely be familiar with the term ‘emotional labour’. The extent to which some job roles require employees to bring their emotions, or at least a reasonable approximately of them, to the workplace.  Think carers or nurses… people who need to show empathy, to engage emotionally on some level with others around them as part of the job.

This report talks instead of ‘aesthetic labour’. The extent to which a job requires candidates to look a certain way or dress a certain way.  Think of the trendy clothes shop.  They want someone who will represent their brand, look ‘right’ in their clothes, and present the right image for them.

Of course so-called lookism doesn’t just extend to weight and body shape. There’s often a debate about tattoos, piercings or hairstyles in the workplace to be had.  And that is before you get onto the whole dress code thing.  (For the record, on that front I’m in the camp that believes if you have to tell people what to wear who presumably as well as holding down a job manage to feed themselves, pay taxes and grow body hair you’ve got bigger problems to worry about.)

We might sit here and tut and say how wrong it is to judge people on how they look, but it happens. We know it does. The report cites other research from 2010 which demonstrated that hiring managers in the retail industry often appoint people with the ‘right look’ to the exclusion of almost all other qualifications and experience.

Every time we interview someone we are making a whole host of judgements – some right and some inevitably wrong. We are impacted by cognitive bias after cognitive bias.  Horns and halos.  Liking people who are like us.  Snap judgements.  Recruitment is inherently discriminatory in that sense.  And of course, discrimination is only against the law if (in the UK at least) if it falls into one of a small list of protected characteristics, including race, gender and the like.

Bald? Fat? Skinny? Spotty? Manchester United Fan?  Grow a straggly beard?

Tough. If I don’t like any of these things I can discriminate against you all I want.

Many years ago I remember interviewing with a manager who was overly taken with a candidate because of how much he liked his shoes. I had to seriously work hard to get him past the brown brogues.

We can’t legislate against this stuff. It’s about attitudes.  It’s about wider societal perceptions, media messages, our so-called ideals of what people should and should not look like.  It’s employment stuff but everything else too.

One of the most interesting things about the research was that only slight differences in weight, for the women at least, impacted negatively on perceptions of employability.  Just a little upward shift in BMI and they were less desirable candidates.  Whether we think we are above this stuff or not, this report indicates that such attitudes are real and widespread.

So what can we do about it?

In truth there is no easy answer. There isn’t any easy answer when it comes to addressing any sort of discrimination, unlawful or otherwise, in employment and in life.  It is bigger than work stuff.  As the report suggests, maybe all we can begin to do is shine a light on the issue, and the challenges that (even slightly) overweight women face in the job market.  So, this blog post is my contribution.

Time for some reflection perhaps, on what our own attitudes and beliefs about overweight people really are.


1 thought on “Women, Weight and Employability

  1. Reflective and helpful for clarification of thoughts. Sadly I agree that it is hard to do a great deal about this. I suppose awareness raising so that people (hiring managers) are aware of their prejudices is a start. In some ‘recruitment’ training years ago, one of exercises was to discuss in pairs/small groups all of our prejudices or things that would put us off a candidate. Then the usual feed back on a flip chart. It was light hearted but made a strong point. Mine was a certain regional accent. Hopefully my awareness of this irrational prejudice helps me to disregard it.

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