Obese Women Make Less Money, Work More Physically Demanding Jobs
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."
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:
Overweight women make less money than their thinner peers. They also make less money than similarly overweight men. A new study set out to see why. Jennifer Shinall teaches law at Vanderbilt University. She's the lead author of the study, and she says the first problem is the type of work available to overweight women.
JENNIFER SHINALL: Well, 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. Now, the reason that that's important is that personal interaction jobs pay more on average than physical activity jobs. On the flip side, physical activity jobs pay less on average.
GRIGSBY BATES: Describe some of these jobs for us. What do you mean when you say personal interaction jobs as opposed to demanding activity jobs?
SHINALL: So personal interaction jobs are jobs that require a high level of communication with others. So some of the characteristics I look at in my study are the amount of interaction you have with the public, how important communication with others is to your job, how important sales is to your job, how important interpersonal relationships are to your job. And so examples of occupations where things like that would be important, of course, are things like sales, reception, any kind of job where you will be called to be the face of the company.
GRIGSBY BATES: Interestingly, as you say this, I'm just thinking, you know, I've sat in doctor's offices waiting for a physical - whatever. And you see reps for pharmaceutical companies come in. And I have never seen a really overweight woman dragging a samples case. It's always been women who look like what you would think the 1960s flight attendant would look like. So you're saying that's not an accident?
SHINALL: That's not - it certainly doesn't seem to be an accident, and it's certainly consistent with what my research is finding.
GRIGSBY BATES: But you're saying that obese men - similarly obese men - do not find their options narrowed this way. What does your research suggest is the reason for that?
SHINALL: Well, I think my research is highly suggestive of sex-based discrimination. Employers don't mind if an obese man is the face of their company, but they have a very different attitude towards obese women.
GRIGSBY BATES: I'm wondering if part of that goes back to the turn of the last century when obese men were considered powerful and prosperous, and it was desirable in some ways to look that way - when you think of William Howard Taft and how huge he was. Perhaps there is - or people don't think about a corollary for women - they don't think of being large and lush as necessarily desirable, even, let alone powerful.
SHINALL: Right. I think that's absolutely right. There certainly seems to be different standards for men's appearance versus women's appearance. An anecdote that I often like to share is when I presented this research at a conference a few months ago, one response from an audience member was, well, this research makes absolute sense to me. Fat guys are fun.
So I think there's also a sense of personality traits that go along with obesity may be different between men and women, as well. Whether that's true or not, you know, who knows? But I think there's certainly a conception that obese men are somehow different than obese woman.
GRIGSBY BATES: Jennifer Shinall teaches at Vanderbilt Law School and joined us from their campus in Nashville. Thank you very much.
SHINALL: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.