Vicki Arnstein 11 March 2016
Study points to ‘awful but true’ unconscious biases among employers, say experts
Employers are being warned not to unwittingly discriminate against people because of their height or weight, after researchers at the University of Exeter found that short men and overweight women earn less.
A study that examined data from 120,000 people between the ages of 40 and 70 uncovered a link between body mass index, height and earnings, with men who are shorter than the national average of 5ft9 and women who are heavier than average (11 stone) found to earn around £1,500 a year less than their counterparts.
Professor Tim Frayling, from the university’s medical school, said: “This is the best available evidence to indicate that your height or weight can directly influence your earnings and other socioeconomic factors throughout your life.
“This won’t apply in every case – many shorter men and overweight women are very successful – but science must now ask why we are seeing this pattern. Is it down to factors such as low self-esteem or depression, or is it more to do with discrimination? In a world where we are obsessed with body image, are employers biased?”
The research tallies with a study from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, which found that employers gave overweight individuals low ratings for competence, regardless of their qualifications or performance. Research from the Australian National University also found that a 6ft tall man can expect to earn 1.5 per cent more than a colleague who is two inches shorter.
Tam Fry, spokesman for the National Obesity Forum, said: “We have known for a long time that both [quoted forms of discrimination] are truisms. If you are a shorter man, with the same qualifications as a taller man, the tall man will get the job. By the same token, an overweight woman will earn less. It is awful but true.”
Fry said he believed employers were acting on unconscious biases, rather than outwardly discriminating: “We are brought up to think that if you are fat you are less than perfect and that it is really tall men who are commanding.
“It is discrimination and, from an employment point of view, there is no reason for it. If you can do the job, you can do the job, and you should get paid equally.”
With the problem of obesity increasing in the UK, employers are being warned to be on guard for unconscious bias, to help avoid potential legal claims. On current estimates, more than half of the population could be obese by 2050.
Naeema Choudry, partner and employment law expert from the human relations practice group at Eversheds, said: “When people are involved in recruitment, selection and employment it is important that they have some awareness of their unconscious bias, so many organisations are now making sure everyone has training.”
Choudry said that, although height isn’t a protected characteristic – unless growth is affected by a disability – an existing employee could raise a grievance if they suspect discrimination. “[They could] say: ‘I don’t know why I am being paid £1,500 less than my colleague and we are doing the same job.'”
Fry agreed that employees could be motivated to take action if they feel discriminated against because of their height or weight. “If someone believes, and can prove, that they are earning less simply because they are larger or shorter, they have every right to say: ‘Why are you discriminating against me because of my size?'”
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