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Could being obese cost you your job?

By Amy Corderoy

The answer is yes... particularly if you're a woman.

Every now and then I come across a study (/person/event/etc) that reaffirms my belief that most people are jerks. This is one of those studies.

Researchers often talk about the stigma faced by overweight and obese people.

And if you have ever being seriously overweight you have probably had the experience of being yelled at out a car window, or having a clothing salesperson treat you like you don’t deserve to be in their shop.

But what if being fat could cost you your job, or your promotion?

This  study has found it just might do that. The German researchers randomly recruited 127 HR professionals from a conference (as a journo who has spent a fair bit of time lurking around parks, music festivals and various other public events looking for people to interview, I can attest to how creepy this feels/is), and asked them to review pictures of people from various ethnicities and weights.

When asked to pick which one of six individuals they would absolutely not hire, 42 per cent picked the obese woman and 19 per cent the obese man.

And when it came to picking three out of the six candidates as being suitable for a promotion, they were more likely to pick the… wait, hold your breath… white, non-obese man – four and a half times more likely, in fact.

But hey, if you’re an obese woman, don’t just think it’s your weight that’s holding you back.  Perhaps unsurprisingly for us ladies, if the HR reps were forced to choose only between obese men and women, they were 7 times as likely to pick the man.

“While there was also an overall mild gender and race bias in supervisor position selections, weight produced by far the largest inequalities, especially in women,” the researchers wrote on the journal BMC Public Health. “To the contrary, HR professionals showed no gender bias for normal-weight candidates, selecting females and males in equal proportion for a supervisory position.” This was despite the fact that in Germany only 33 per cent of management positions are actually held by women.

I don’t want to jump on the whole HR = evil thing (you are definitely in a glass house when your profession is rated one of the least ethical and honest there is. People like newspaper journalists even less than talk-back radio hosts, WHAT??) but how depressing.

The researchers thought that the fact the HR workers weren't showing a gender bias in non-obese people indicated that they were aware of the issue of women being discriminated against in the workplace. But obesity stigma seems like an intractable problem. How do you stop something that research shows remains even after people lose weight? (pdf)

And how do you challenge something when so many people who experience it actually blame themselves

The researchers say there is an urgent need for campaigns to stop obesity-related discrimination in the workforce, and promote positive attitudes – something which will undoubtedly be screamed down as ‘political correctness gone mad’.

The reality is that obesity-related stigma and discrimination is something many of us still think is acceptable, in the workplace or anywhere else.

Published: 19 July 2012

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