Fat phobia in corporate America

May 3, 2018

In a recent study on hiring bias by the job-reviewing platform Fairygodboss, a picture of a heavier woman was shown to 500 job recruiters. The survey respondents described her as friendly, confident, and professional—but just 15.2% said they would hire her. (And fully 20% characterized the supposed candidate as “lazy.”)

“That kind of data may have far-reaching consequences,” Refinery29, a website targeted at women, reports. For example, if overweight women are not being considered for professional positions, no matter what their qualifications, they certainly are not being promoted either.

Forget the resume, these sources advise. Fat-shaming and fat phobia are still alive and kicking in corporate America. Sixty-seven percent of U.S. women are plus-sized and they will attest to the problem.

At the executive level, there aren’t many plus-sized CEOs—either male or female— at America’s Fortune 500 companies, and that hunch becomes a lot more definite with data: Several academic studies suggest that not only is weight discrimination in the workplace a prevalent reality; it affects who ends up at the top of America’s corporate ladder.

Hiring managers do not deny that they consider what appearance is expected of a top executive—and “energetic” and healthy looking” are just two of the descriptors that fit the bill. Despite Silicon Valley’s preference for hoodies, company executives are still expected to have looks that convey confidence and strength.

This is a time when female executives land photo shoots on the covers and in the pages of women’s magazines. Think Yahoo’s Marisa Mayer and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg.

“There’s definitely a bias against bigger bodies. No question about that,” said Alexandra Waldman, the creative director at Universal Standard, a minimalist clothing brand that caters to plus-sized professional women. Waldman identifies as plus-sized, although she doesn’t like being labeled.

She worked in investment banking before starting her own company, and told Refinery29 tha,. in her experience, appearances are a part of the equation. It was extremely difficult for her to feel powerful, Waldman explained, when she wasn’t able to dress the part, and that’s one of the reasons she started her clothing company.

“There’s definitely a certain look, and if you’re going to get into the race then you want to look like a winning horse,” she explains. “It’s inevitable, you’re going to draw conclusions about somebody’s value, somebody’s place in the hierarchy.”

The take-away: While plus-sized celebrities—such as Oprah —can leverage their star power for a place in the C-suite, the vast majority of plus-sized women lack that particular advantage.

Finally, unlike discrimination based on race or gender, weight discrimination is, for the most part, legal in the United States. Generally, courts have ruled that appearance discrimination — that is, hiring someone because they’re more attractive, in better shape, taller, or thinner — is perfectly legal.

In fact, few suits are brought against companies that do not hire plus-size applicants. “A lot of people don’t want to raise the issue. It can be embarrassing to them. It can be something they don’t want other people to know about,” says Marshall Tanick, a Minneapolis-based employment attorney. “It’s kind of an invisible issue; it’s much more subtle than a race or gender issue. It’s not transparent, and it doesn’t come up that often.”

There is currently only one state in the U.S. where weight discrimination is illegal: Michigan.

So, what can be done? Waldman, who’s now an executive of her own company, has advice that women (and people of color) have heard before: In the face of prejudice, just don’t give an inch: “The way you overcome that is the way you overcome any prejudice, you work harder and smarter than everyone else and then no one can say anything. You erase those prejudices by not giving them a single nail to hang them on. You just do better, and more, and show everyone you’re more than capable.”

But, of course, first you have to get in the door.

Research contact: feedback@refinery29.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *