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'Thinner and Cuter' Women Get Better Jobs and Higher Pay

04/14/2014 12:27 EDT | Updated 06/14/2014 05:59 EDT
Martin Barraud via Getty Images

Women have come a long way -- and have some way to go. The wage gap, numbers of corporate directors, child care responsibilities are just some of the issues where more progress is needed in the workplace alone. Another is the harsh judgment of the obese, especially females

This month's Atlantic has a sobering feature on the fate of fat women and their careers -- fat is the preferred term for some in the overweight community; obese being viewed as medicalized and perjorative. I use both terms.

According to U.S. statistics, a woman who is thin makes more money but the opposite tends to be the case for men. Overweight and obese men, not shielded from discrimination themselves, are, nevertheless, well represented among CEOs. There should be more women as CEOS, generally, but those who are overweight/obese are drastically underrepresented. One study, mentioned in the Atlantic, suggests that, in terms of economic impact, obesity imposes costs on women that are twice as much as those borne by men; much of this difference stems from the depressed wages of fat women.

The Atlantic article is just a recent installment documenting the barriers that obese women face. One study, reported in 2011, of 10,000 graduates of Wisconsin high schools found that overweight men experienced few barriers to getting hired and promoted but fat women, for a variety of reasons related to reactions to being overweight, were less likely to earn college degrees, had jobs with lower earnings, and less social status than thinner female peers. Women working in television have been required to be thin (and young and beautiful) to be hired and retain their positions.

Fat females, in day to day situations, confront discrimination in many forms. A 250-pound aerobics instructor in California who was fit, had many students, and no record of performance issues was denied a Jazzercise franchise. The company claimed that only "fit, toned" individuals were eligible; the instructor wanted to be judged "on my merits, not my measurements". Even if they are only moderately large, women can be subject to disparaging comments should they reach an elite position. Justice Sonia Sotomayer, of the U.S. Supreme Court, weighs nowhere near a level that might suggest, however accurately, increased risk of mortality. Yet there were a number of comments during her confirmation hearing suggesting that she wasn't going to "last too long"

All is not bleak. Older, heavier women with excellent skills are now on tv. Think of Candy Crowley the terrific political commentator and interviewer on CNN. A combination of public pressure and a legal complaint got the aerobics instructor her Jazzercise franchise. Justice Sotomayer was confirmed and discharges her duties with energy and enthusiasm. Yet the careers and lives of too many obese woman are as documented in the Wisconsin study. Several years ago in the U.S. a female employee who had been named "Telemarketer of the Year" applied for a "face to face" job with the same company. She weighed 270 pounds. Another woman with fewer credentials but who was "thinner and cuter" got the job.

Human right laws protect people from wrongful discrimination. But, except in a very few jurisdictions, obesity (unlike, say, religion, gender, or sexual orientation) is not one of the protected grounds. Increasingly there are people who have looked at these issues who think legal protection for the obese from discrimination is needed. This is the direction we may be heading.

But before we decide if we need to change the law let's change attitudes. Let's all sign up for better eating and more exercise. But let's not allow size to drive judgment The Jazzercise instructor had it right: it's time to assess fat people, especially women "on my merits, not my measurements".

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