Many forms of discrimination persist in the workplace, but a new study highlights a prejudice that most people wouldn’t even think about: obesity bias.
In a new study in the International Journal of Obesity, researchers gave participants a series of résumés with small photos of applicants attached, both before and after weight-loss surgery. The researchers discovered that criteria like starting salary, leadership potential and the selection of the candidate for the job were all negatively affected for women who were considered obese.
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The study also shows that people who were more confident with their own overall physical attributes responded more negatively to those who were overweight.
“The higher participants rated their own physical attractiveness and the importance of physical appearance, the greater the prejudice and discrimination,” said psychologist and lead researcher Kerry O’Brien. “One interpretation of this finding might be that we feel better about our own bodies if we compare ourselves and discriminate against ‘fat’ people, but we need to test this experimentally.”
Weight discrimination in the workplace is often largely ignored, but it’s a serious issue and one that’s been in the news recently after a Texas hospital said it would require new employees to have a body mass index of less than 35. (That’s about 245 lb. for a man of 5 ft. 10 in., and 195 lb. for a 5-ft. 2-in. woman.)
According to the Texas Tribune, the Citizens Medical Center in Victoria, Texas, instituted a new policy requiring that an employee’s physique “should fit with a representational image or specific mental projection of the job of a health care professional.”
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While most forms of discrimination are banned, weight bias largely isn’t. In fact, Michigan is the only state where weight discrimination is specifically outlawed at work. But everywhere else, employers are off the hook if they have a legitimate business reason to deny an overweight employee a job. It’s unclear whether the Texas hospital has passed that test.
Only female applicants were included in the study, which was conducted by the University of Manchester and Monash University in Melbourne. Women often feel the most pressure to remain thin, and according to a 2007 Michigan State University study, women were 16 times more likely than men to report weight discrimination at work.
According to a study in the Journal of Obesity, the U.S. has seen a 66% increase in weight bias over the past 10 years, a level of discrimination that’s comparable to racial bias in the workplace.
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