Forget pay parity, it seems like working women will have to fight yet another battle. If body shaming through various media wasn't enough, now a new study has found that women face weight-based biases in the workplace, even when their body mass index is within the healthy range. (Body Mass Index or BMI is a measure of fat in adults. The formula to compute BMI is weight in kg divided by the square of the height in metres.) This finding has come up in a research led by an academic at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.
In the study, participants rated people on their suitability for jobs in the service sector, based on their appearance. Researchers found that even marginal increase in weight had a negative impact on the female candidates’ job prospects.
“Many organisations in the service sector, such as shops, bars and hotels, seek to employ people with the right ‘look’ which will fit with their corporate image," said professor Dennis Nickson, who is based at the university’s department of human resource management. "A key element of a person’s look is their weight. Workplace discrimination against those of anything other than ‘normal’ weight is not new. A large number of studies have highlighted how people who are obese or overweight suffer from bias when they look for employment."
She added that this study, though, shows how women, even within a medically-healthy BMI range, still face discrimination in service sector employment.
However, this is not the first time a study has thrown up findings like these. In 2012, according to a study in the Journal of Obesity, the United States saw a 66 per cent increase in weight bias over the past decade, a level of discrimination that was seen as comparable to racial bias in the workplace.
In India, the national carrier Air India grounded nine female attendants in 2006 for being 'exceptionally overweight' and it did exactly the same thing last year, by grounding 130 mostly women flight attendants for being on the 'heavier' side. In 2013, India's Directorate General of Civil Aviation issued guidelines that required the attendants to go through routine medical check-ups that included BMI evaluations.
In the Strathclyde academic's study, 120 participants were asked to rate eight photos of men and women for their suitability to work in customer-facing roles, such as a waiter, sales assistant in a shop, and for a non-customer facing role, such as a kitchen porter or stock assistant.
They were told that applicants were equally qualified and were shown faces that reflected a ‘normal’ weight and a subtle ‘heavier’ face. “The results found that both women and men face challenges in a highly ‘weight-conscious’ labour market, especially for customer-facing roles. However, women faced far more discrimination. We found that women, even within a normal BMI range, suffered greater weight-based bias compared to men who were overtly overweight," said Professor Nickson.
The findings raise a number of practical implications, both ethically and from a business point of view. "Ethically, the results of the study are deeply-unsettling from the viewpoint of gender inequality in the workplace, highlighting the unrealistic challenges women face against societal expectations of how they should look. From a business point of view, we would argue that employers should consciously work against such prejudice and bias by providing sensitivity training for those responsible for recruitment," she added.
The research, published in the journal PLOS ONE, was carried out in partnership with University of St Andrews academics Dr Andrew Timming and Professor David Perrett—of The Perception Lab—and the University of Toronto’s Dr Daniel Re