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Obesity Hurts Women’s Earning Potential



A new study has found that overweight women frequently suffer from an “obesity penalty” that hurts their potential for higher earnings in the job market. A groundbreaking study in 2004 found that, for women, a 9 percent drop in earnings is associated with a 65-pound weight gain. The new study, authored by Vanderbilt University’s law professor Jennifer Shinall, looked to find why that obesity penalty exists, particularly since it appears not to apply to overweight men.

Shinall found that obese women are less likely to work in personal interaction jobs, more often ending up in physical activity jobs with lower pay. For example, Shinall looked at jobs at a paper company, one in sales and one in the warehouse. Being in sales means being the face of the company as well as making more money, but overweight women are more likely to have a job in the warehouse than a woman of average weight. The trend did not apply to morbidly obese men.

There are three theories as to why this obesity penalty exists. The first is that the employee herself is actually choosing to work in jobs that pay less. However, Shinall said she thinks that these physical labor jobs may be the only jobs that many women who are morbidly obese can get. These are the jobs that no one else wants. The other two possible explanations have to do with the employer. One theory says that obese women are seen as less productive so employers pay them less. The other says that they pay them less because the employer does not like working with obese women, or perhaps are concerned that their clients will prefer not to interact with them.

The research categorized occupations based on how much they depend on personal interactions and how much on physical activity. Jobs with high levels of physical activity tend to pay less. Somewhat paradoxically the analysis found that obese women are more likely to work in the more physically active jobs. Shinall points out that if obese women are seen as potentially less productive it does not make sense for them to be hired into jobs that are physical.

The study found that employers have very different attitudes about obesity regarding men versus women, and how having an obese man represent the company is perceived as more acceptable than an obese woman. When the research was presented at a conference one audience member said that the research made absolute sense because “fat guys are fun.”

The study used federal health and employment data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those figures were compared to a detailed breakdown of the U.S. workforce. The findings showed that overweight female workers are much more likely to be in lower-paying jobs where they work on their feet, lifting and moving constantly.

Even if an obese woman managed to get a job that requires personal interaction, she earns almost 5 percent less than a woman of average weight doing the same job. The same did not hold true for overweight men.

Other studies have documented discrimination against fat people in varied areas such as housing and college admission, as well as employment. Joanne Ikeda, nutritionist emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and a scientific advisor to the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, says employers today are allowed to fire people for no other reason than being overweight. She says that the “war on obesity” has led to a belief that heavy people can be scared or shamed into getting thin, which is ludicrous.

Shinall says that the obesity research does not prove that overweight women are being discriminated against by being placed in jobs with lower earning potential, but that it does make it sound plausible. She said there is a perception in society that it is more okay for a man to be obese.

By Beth A. Balen

National Geographic
Social Science Research Network
NBC News
Photo by Tony Alter – Flickr license