It is an extremely sad fact that people who are overweight or obese face hiring discrimination, but it seems weight bias is even more pervasive than we thought, and more discriminatory toward women. In a new study, people said they’d be less likely to hire women at the high end of the healthy weight range in a customer-facing job than they would an overweight man.
For the study in PLOS ONE, researchers had 120 people (half men, half women) look at photos of 40 strangers’ faces two different times. They were instructed that the candidates were equally qualified and asked to rate how likely they would be to hire them for positions where they’d interact with customers (as in the retail and hospitality industries) and jobs where they would not.
Four women and four men were actually in the set of photos twice: once as they normally appear and again with their faces digitally altered to look heavier. It’s these photos that the researchers were most interested in, but they added random “diversion” faces so the people rating the pictures didn’t suspect that the study was about weight.
The women had their faces manipulated to reflect an average BMI of 24.06, which is within the “normal” range of 18.5 to 24.9, and the men were made to look like their BMI was 26.47, which is considered overweight. (BMI is a highly flawed measure of weight, but that’s another story.)
The authors found a statistically significant difference in people’s ratings of the four women’s faces: They were less likely to hire the heavier-looking women in a customer-facing role. There was no significant difference between the ratings of the men’s original or “heavier” faces for the two types of jobs. So essentially, these normal-weight women faced higher levels of bias than overweight men.
And the study only included altered faces of white people. The authors said that this was done consciously to limit the variables tested and acknowledged that future studies including people of different races are needed to understand the intersectionality of weight and race in terms of job prospects.