How do you react when all of your colleagues get pay raises and all you receive is a gym membership? You say nothing.
Within the first few seconds of meeting someone, Nathan Schokker can tell if they’re making snap judgements about his size. It’s a look they have in their eyes, he says.
“I’m a bit of a larger guy… so when you feel people measuring you up, making assumptions about your abilities, skills and experience within the first few seconds of meeting you, that can be really disheartening,” says Schokker, found of Talio, a facilities management and cleaning company.
“It’s a knock to your confidence. From that point on, you feel like you’re just on the back foot the whole time, to the extent where you question the point of continuing the meeting or the conversation beyond that point? I’ve certainly experienced that a number of times over the years.”
There are lots of stories out there of staff being told they had to lose weight to keep their jobs. A Pakistani airline threatened overweight staff with a memo. In another online story, one person recounted how a stranger in a supermarket reached into their shopping trolley and removed certain edible items. Another says a colleague watched them take a bite of a doughnut and commented they were “slowing killing” themselves.
And these are just examples of overt bullying. Many employees face more subtle forms of workplace discrimination – career setbacks, financial disadvantage and social exclusion, for example – due to their size.
A caricature of yourself
If larger people don’t fulfil the jolly, funny and larger-than-life personality type unfairly expected of someone of their size, often they’re immediately filed away in the lazy, sluggish or incompetent category – there’s no middle ground. Schokker can attest to this.
“You feel like you have to overextend yourself to make up for your size, which can become disingenuous, or you can become a caricature of yourself. You have to put on this persona to please other people. The second that persona is dropped, people notice straight away. So you’ve got to keep it up.”
Various studies show that overweight candidates are frequently passed over for job opportunities and promotions, but some interesting 2016 research by science journal PLOS ONE suggests recruitment size bias has a gender component. We are more likely to discriminate against overweight women than overweight men.
In the study, a series of faces (all white, to control for biases around race) were shown to a group of 120 participants. They were asked to determine who they’d hire for a customer-facing role, and were told all candidates were equally qualified.
Some of the faces appeared more than once, but the images were digitally altered to make the candidates look larger. The researchers found that heavier-looking women were less likely to be hired than heavy-looking men.
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Larger people don’t just suffer career setbacks – all else being equal, they get paid less.
Women who are considered to be obese are paid up to $19,000 USD less than average-weight women, according to a 2011 study led by Timothy Judge of the University of Florida.
The research also shows the disparity between the salaries of average sized women and those who are below the average weight. Judge found that women in the study who were 70 pounds (about 32kg) below the mean weight were predicted to receive an average of $22,000 USD more each year. The difference between these women and women 70 pounds over the mean weight was over $40,000 USD.
Interestingly, Judge also found that men who were under the average weight received around $8,000 USD less than their average weight counterparts. A man who is 25 pounds (around 11 kilograms) below average weight is predicted to earn $210,925 USD less across a 25-year career than a man who is of average weight.
So, thin women are rewarded and thin men are punished.
Judge is quick to point out that his study can’t draw a definitive link between weight and income, he’s only able to make predictions.
“Although we examined within-person effects across time and included a number of important control variables to help rule out alternative explanations (e.g health issues), experimental designs are needed to confirm discrimination effects,” says Judge.
“I was too scared to ask for those things. I was worried if I did, and they said no, that I’d be shown the door. And then who’s going to hire someone as overweight as I was? I had to think about my kids.” – Jamie
His results are interesting nonetheless. For example, Judge posits that the difference in income between very thin and average sized women could be due to the fact that those who conform to ‘ideal’ body sizes find it easier to influence others, therefore they might perform better and be rewarded with promotion opportunities/salary bumps for doing so. This wouldn’t be discriminatory behaviour, but it would show a clear bias in favour of thinner female staff.
It seems unbelievable that someone’s size could have that much of an impact on their yearly earnings, doesn’t it? But HRM didn’t have to go searching for long to find someone who experienced this first hand.
Jamie* is a Sydney-based recruiter. When she was younger, she was a size 8 and full of confidence, but after a medical issue and having children she started putting on weight. At her heaviest, Jamie says her confidence was often low and her anxiety levels were high.
During that time, she worked at a recruiting company for seven years. When each recruiter met their targets, they took home a commission. Jamie was consistently meeting her targets, if not exceeding them, but it wasn’t until five years into her role that she received her first commission.
But when she finally received a bonus, it wasn’t a financial one. She was pulled into a room and her manager offered her, as a reward for all her hard work and dedication, a gym membership.
“It was for a gym across the road from our office. So I’d come into work and she’d ask me, in front of everyone, did you go to the gym today? It was really embarrassing.”
The second ‘bonus’ Jamie received was a jacket.
“It was this bright white jacket. I never wore that colour, I felt more comfortable in black. She was pressuring me to try it on. I said, ‘Thank you so much, I’ll try it on at home’, but she persisted and made me try it on in front of her.”
This was not the end of Jamie’s experience. While her similarly experienced colleagues received annual pay rises, Jamie didn’t get her first until she’d been with the company for six years. And it was only for $5,000.
Of course, we can’t assume all of this was directly related to her size – that’s just her suspicion. It could be indicative of many things: a predatory business, poor payroll managers or even gender discrimination.
Despite all this Jamie says she had a “really good” relationship with this particular manager. She had trust in her and felt she could have candid conversations about almost anything – anything but asking for more money.
“I was too scared to ask for those things. I was worried if I did, and they said no, that I’d be shown the door. And then who’s going to hire someone as overweight as I was? I had to think about my kids.”
The invisible barriers
Even the most subtle forms of size discrimination in the workplace – such as a comment about what someone is having for lunch – can have negative impacts. Sometimes the most impactful damage of size bias comes from the aftershocks of the direct discrimination, says Schokker.
“I’m quite a shy and introverted person, so when I feel like I’m being judged, it pushes me to become more shy, which can close off the conversations or prevent me from meeting new people. For me, it’s definitely impacted business opportunities and building relationships with people.
“People often feel like they’re unworthy or undeserving of opportunities. Whether it’s a promotion, a pay rise, or more responsibility. They will literally have gone through it hundreds if not thousands of times; they’ve been judged and judged and judged, and they sort of go, ‘What’s the point in fighting against it?’”
Schokker has experienced this directly and seen it happen to his staff. Sue* is one of the cleaners working for Schokker’s company. A lot of her work happens during the evening once a building’s occupants have cleared out.
Sue, a single mum who enjoyed this evening work as it fit her childcare schedule, and who Schokker describes as a larger woman, had been cleaning a high-end residential property for around six months.
One night the manager of the building happened to bump into her. He’d not met her before; it was uncommon for anyone to be in the building at that time. The next day, Schokker received a phone call from the manager requesting a meeting.
“They never had any issues with her cleaning before and they said, ‘Oh, we’re not sure about the cleaner.’ I asked, ‘Have you noticed something that’s not been done properly?’ They said, ‘Oh no, it’s not actually about the work. We just question her ability to clean.’
“They eventually came out and said, ‘Because she’s a bit of a larger lady.’ Honestly, I was so shocked.”
After lots of back and forth with the client, Sue, feeling understandably uncomfortable about the situation, volunteered to move onto a different client.
Jamie’s boss seems like a prototypical example of a perpetrator of size bias. Commenting on someone’s size is often seen as a socially acceptable form of discrimination. A 2012 Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll found that a staggering 61 per cent of people don’t consider making negative remarks about someone’s weight to be offensive.
If you asked these respondents why they feel this way, they would likely say they are simply worried about the health of overweight people. But even if this were a justifiable reason for discrimination, the truth is the tactic would likely have the opposite of its intended effect.
According to 2019 research from Concordia University in Canada, fat shaming someone can cause them to gain more weight. Their cortisol levels increase, their self-control decreases and this means the risks of binge eating increases. They’re also more likely to experience depression, anxiety, exercise-avoidance and low self-esteem.
“People aren’t authorised to make comments about other people’s bodies, says Lisa Annese, the CEO of the Diversity Council of Australia. “If you’re making the comment because you’re worried about someone’s health, then the first question you have to ask yourself is, ‘Am I a medical professional?’ Then ask, ‘Are they my patient and have they asked for my advice?’”
Jamie’s boss would say things like, “are you really going to eat that?” and make comments about Jamie’s appearance. She’d walk fast, knowing that Jamie had trouble keeping up. If they were going to meet a client her boss would suggest she wore heels or a formal jacket, like the one she was gifted. Jamie would get too hot wearing a jacket and sweat, and heels were extremely uncomfortable for her, but she’d comply and would sit through these meetings filled with anxiety, feeling like an imposter.
“I’d come out of those meetings thinking, ‘I never want to do that again’. I always felt like people were just looking at me and judging me,” says Jamie.
It got to a point where Jamie’s confidence was so low that she didn’t even want to attend client lunches or meetings, or any company social gatherings.
“I’d build relationships with clients over the phone. That way I knew I was being judged for what’s in here,” she points to her head, “Instead of for the way I look.”
Jamie still works in recruitment and she’s lost a lot of weight since working with her former employer. Her confidence is back and her experience has completely changed how she approaches recruitment.
“If someone on the interview panel starts making comments about how someone looks or presents, I’m quick to remind them that there are various reasons for this. What looks ‘unprofessional’ to one person might be the only outfit that individual feels comfortable wearing.”
“You feel like you have to overextend yourself to make up for your size, which can become disingenuous, or you can become a caricature of yourself.” – Nathan Schokker
What workplaces can do
Those experiencing size discrimination often feel shamed into silence. To overcome this, Annese suggests organisations put staff through bystander training.
“The person experiencing the discrimination might be mortified or might not want to be seen as being difficult. It really helps if somebody else speaks out. We need allies in our workplaces,” she says.
All employers should want their workplaces to be inclusive, creative and productive, says Annese, and we need to encourage behaviours that are conducive to that.
“If someone is making disparaging comments about someone’s size, it may not be protected under something like a Sex or a Race Discrimination Act, but there might be anti-bullying or occupational health and safety frameworks that can be used if someone is feeling victimised or humiliated,” says Annese.
We all have unconscious biases determined by our experiences. That’s part of being a human. What we need to do, says Annese, is consistently challenge those biases.
“When you’re dealing with something that’s so subconscious it’s really quite challenging to address unless you have official structures in place… we have to have these structures in place until we reprogram ourselves. One academic told me that can take around seven years.”
Schokker seconds this. “If candidates are experienced enough, if they’re knowledgeable enough, if they’re good enough, it’s not going to matter what they look like. They’re going to perform and they will achieve results. They will do that because they’ve embraced the person that they are. They’re comfortable with being short or tall or fat or skinny and that will come across through their performance.
“If you make them feel like they have to look or appear a certain way then you’ll get a very disingenuous person. What kind of business wants that?”
* Names have been changed to protect people’s identities.
An edited version of this article appeared in the February 2020 edition of HRM Magazine.
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