Heavier women are more likely to be lighter in the wallet, reports a new study that says obese females tend to occupy lower-paying, more-strenuous jobs in less-visible corners of the U.S. workforce when compared to average-sized women and men.
In fact, the link between extra pounds and leaner paychecks is distinct: When a woman “becomes overweight,” she already is less likely to land a public-facing role in better-paying white-collar jobs, according to research released Tuesday by Vanderbilt University.
And women who are considered obese or morbidly obese — based on their body mass indexes — are more likely to forced into some of the cheapest-paying, most labor-intensive roles in industries such as home health, food prep and child care, said Jennifer Shinall, the study's author and an assistant professor of law at Vanderbilt Law School.
“The data shows employers don’t want to hire heavier women to be the face of their company,” Shinall said.
“But morbidly obese men don’t seem to be underrepresented in these personal-interaction jobs, nor do they seem to be over-represented in physical-activity jobs. That’s what’s striking about the data: We see a pattern for women but not for men,” Shinall said. “This is a sexual discrimination issue.”
She drew her conclusions by examining federal employment and health data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau — the agencies’ joint Current Population Survey — and matching those figures against a national survey of American eating habits and a detailed breakdown of the U.S. workforce.
The findings also cast obesity — at least among women — in new light, offering a collective image of overweight female workers not sitting idly for eight-hour shifts but toiling on their feet, lifting and constantly moving.
That work is typically not by choice, however, because such jobs tend to be among the lowest on the pay scale.
“I think what’s going on here is these physical-labor jobs are the only jobs that many morbidly obese women can get,” Shinall said. “Their options are more limited. Lots of times, these are the jobs that no one else wants.”
She dubs the pay differential between plus-size women and average-size women: the “obese wage penalty.”
For example, in jobs that require hours of personal interaction with customers or outsiders, a morbidly obese woman will earn almost 5 percent less than a average-weight woman who holds a job with the same public-facing demands, the federal data shows.
“This has been a factor in the workplace for a long time, I think. But it’s much more salient now because we’re all heavier — there’s a lot more overweight and obese people in the country,” Shinall said. “The problem doesn’t seem to be going away. And now, there is a larger number of heavier women.”
The findings of inequalities do not surprise Joanne Ikeda, a longtime member of and scientific adviser to the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, a civil rights nonprofit.
"There has been just study after study showing fat people are discriminated against in housing, employment, college admission, even in adoption," said Ikeda, nutritionist emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. "You can today fire a fat person for no other reason other than they are fat, and you don’t want a fat employee."
Only a few cities, including San Francisco and Ithaca, New York, have enacted ordinances that protect the civil rights of overweight citizens.
"In the workplace, this is getting worse," Ikeda said. "The whole 'war on obesity' has focused a whole lot of attention on fat people and the general impression of the public is they can be shamed or scared into getting thin. Which is absolutely ludicrous. If every fat person who has been shamed was motivated to somehow get thin, believe me they would be."