In a recent study on hiring bias by the job-reviewing platform Fairygodboss, a picture of a heavier woman was shown to 500 recruiters. The survey respondents described her as friendly, confident, and professional, but the big takeaway is that just 15.2 percent said they would hire her (20 percent said she was “lazy”).
That kind of data may have far reaching consequences. If plus-sized women aren’t being hired, they can’t get (or won’t) promoted either. At the executive level, there aren’t many plus-sized CEOs — male or female — at America’s Fortune 500 companies, and that hunch becomes a lot more definite with data: There’s a handful of academic studies that 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.
On paper, America’s CEOs traditionally have at least a college degree, if not an MBA, along with industry reputations and references that sing. Among the personal qualities a company considers, the ideal CEO has to look the part. But what does that mean exactly? To look like a leader? Despite Silicon Valley’s preference for hoodies, company executives are still expected to have looks that convey confidence and strength. The style of female executives has certainly evolved over the years, from stiff suits to jewel tone ensembles along with a cottage industry of image consultants who advise on clothes, makeup and hair for powerful women.
This is the decade where female executives land photoshoots in Vogue and Fortune — look at Marisa Mayer, Yahoo’s former CEO, who went from power suit to a royal blue Michael Kors dress and stilettos in the 2009 September issue. Or Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi with her signature colorful scarves. Even Sheryl Sandberg attended the World Economic Forum in a matching oxblood dress and heels. Highly successful women often say they want to wear things that make them feel powerful. There’s a look: It’s not trendy, and it’s definitely not from a fast-fashion retailer. It’s from Stella McCartney or Theory, and it screams success.
The C-Suite Is Thin
Thanks to our endless fascination with those in power — and perhaps because so many middle managers and upper management employees are angling for a spot in the C-suite — there’s a seemingly endless supply of books, studies, and advice on just how to get a seat at the top table. In that research is a niche devoted to how people in corporate leadership tend to look, two things are clear: First, there are few women. Even as studies show that companies with female executives are more profitable, just 32 women, or 6.4 percent, are on the 2017 Fortune 500’s list.
Secondly: Very few female CEOs in America are plus-sized.
“There’s definitely a bias against bigger bodies. No question about that,” says Alexandra Waldman, the co-founder and 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 says that in her experience, appearances are a part of the equation. It was extremely difficult for her to feel powerful 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.”
Patricia Roehling, a professor of psychology at Hope College, used photos of America’s top executives to quantify the matter. “I noticed there were very few overweight people in positions of prominence, like elected officials and CEOs,” said Roehling. She found a stark underrepresentation of overweight men and women among top executives in the U.S. For women, Roehling’s study estimates that only 5-22 pecent of CEOs are plus, despite that 67% of women in America identify as a size 14 or larger. The effect is also gendered: that range is 45-61 percent for male CEOs.
The implication of her study is that weight discrimination is particularly punishing for female executives, and that’s even more concerning as these women already have to contend with the corporate “glass ceiling.” While plus-sized celebrities — like Oprah — can leverage their star power for a place in the C-suite, the vast majority of plus-sized women don’t have have that particular advantage.
“This research suggests that [companies] see people who are overweight or obese as undisciplined, not healthy, lazy … but some of our other research has shown that these stereotypes are largely untrue,” says Roehling.
The Weight Discrimination Wealth Gap
The stereotypes around plus-sized men and women are largely negative in the workplace, especially in an era when “healthy” looking executives reads as more competent. “It is likely that people — leaders — make judgments about people’s traits depending if they are overweight or underweight, and that this applied more to women than men,” explains Daniel Cable, a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School.
It’s not just those who want to be executives who are punished as a result of these biases. In Cable’s research with Timothy Judge, he found a wage penalty for gaining weight. Looking at the pay and weight data for a cohort of 12,000 Americans over the three decades, they found that gaining 25 pounds for a woman meant an average decrease in salary of $13,000 if the woman was already above average weight, and over $15,000 if she was below average weight.
This has significant implications on wealth: “This means that, all else equal, a woman who is average weight earns $389,300 less across a 25-year career than a woman who is 25 pounds below average weight.” Long story short: Thin women make a lot more money than their plus-sized counterparts.“These pervasive negative stereotypes also appear to be held by employers, accounting for the widespread obesity discrimination that has been documented. Of course, many of society’s expectations for women are unobtainable,” Cable says.