Being overweight hurts your earnings, and being an overweight woman is particularly tough on income. Back in 2004, a landmark study found that a 65 pound increase in a woman's weight is associated with a 9 percent drop in earnings. The authors of the study noted that, in terms of wages, the "obesity penalty" basically amounted to losing three years of experience in the workplace.
A new study set out to see why that penalty exists. Jennifer Shinall, who teaches law at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and authored the study, had a few hypotheses.
- Choice: Perhaps obese women are choosing to work in jobs that pay less.
- Productivity: Perhaps obese women are less productive.
- Discrimination: Perhaps employers are denying obese women jobs based on how they look or because they don't like working with obese women.
Shinall analyzed a lot of data about employees, looking at, among other things, gender, body mass index, wages, job description and industry. What she found is that job descriptions, and particularly how physically demanding job are, explains a lot about the obesity penalty.
"What my research indicates is that obese women are more likely to work in physical activity jobs and less likely to work in personal interaction jobs," she explains.
That's important because those "personal interaction jobs," like sales and reception, pay more on average than jobs that require more manual labor and less communication with the public.
Take, for example, two jobs at a paper company: a role in the warehouse, and a job in sales. Working in sales means being the face of the company — and making more money. An obese woman, based on Shinall's research, is more likely than an average-weight woman to have the job in the warehouse, and less likely to work in sales.
Shinall also found that this trend did not apply to obese men.
"I think my research is highly suggestive of sex-based discrimination," says Shinall. "Employers don't mind if an obese man is the face of their company, but they have a very different attitude toward obese women."
She says there seem to be different standards for the appearance of men and women. "When I presented this research at a conference ... one response from an audience member was, 'Well, this research makes absolute sense to me. Fat guys are fun,' " Shinall remembers.
"I think there's certainly a conception that obese men are somehow different than obese women."