Monday, April 13, 2009

Women's weight contributes to the wage gap

ResearchBlogging.orgWhether we want to admit to it or not, women, on average, get paid less than men do. Women make only about $0.75 for every dollar made by men, and even if you factor out pregnancies and children, single, never-married women still only make $0.90 on the man's dollar. Why do women make so much less? We can point fingers and call sexism all we want, but part of it is that they simply don't hold as many positions in the highest levels of management. Thus women don't have as many of the highest paying jobs, despite having the same ambition, qualifications, and desire as the men who do. And why, according to new research, might have more to do with their waistlines than their resumes.

A study, published in the British Journal Equal Opportunities International, found that overweight women were vastly underrepresented in Fortune 1000 CEOs. Compared to the general population, female CEOs were much thinner on average, with few overweight women and even fewer obese ones. Only 5-22% of the female CEOs were overweight, which is less than the 29% on average present in the population, and only 5% were obese, compared to a general population containing 38%. This suggests that weight discrimination may play a large role in the "glass ceiling" for business women.

The male CEOs, too, showed signs of weight discrimination - those that were obese were vastly underrepresented, weighing in at only 5% of CEOs when their counterparts make up 36% of the male population. But the key difference is that being just overweight, not obese, didn't hurt a guy's CEO prospects. In fact, overweight men were overrepresented in the CEO mix - up to 61% of the male CEOs were overweight, whereas only 41% of their general population is. "This reflects a greater tolerance and possibly even a preference for a larger size among men but a smaller size among women," the researchers write in the study.

The big question is why the weight bar is set so low for women compared to men in these high ranking positions. The finding is consistent with previous research that has found that people are more critical of a woman's body than a man's, and women, in general, are held to harsher weight standards than their male peers. Whether it's cultural influence, sexism or some side effect of self-criticism is still uncertain, but one thing is for sure: the lower bar for women's weight is negatively impacting their incomes, contributing, perhaps dramatically, to the wage gap between the genders.

Of course, this means that getting rid of the wage gap might be harder than we think. It's not just a matter of paying women the same wage at lower level positions - it's a matter of seeing women the same way we see men, which isn't as easy to do as we might like. Our biases against things like weight run deep and aren't going to dissapear overnight. But at least being aware of them, and our other judgements, gives us the chance to treat people with equal respect. It gives us the chance to move a step in the right direction.

PS: here's a video where Mark Roehling, associate professor at Michigan State University, expolores the issue of weight discrimination against women in the workplace in light of this research

Roehling, P., Roehling, M., Vandlen, J., Blazek, J., & Guy, W. (2009). Weight discrimination and the glass ceiling effect among top US CEOs Equal Opportunities International, 28 (2), 179-196 DOI: 10.1108/02610150910937916


Anonymous said...

I may not like the idea of weight discrimination, but I don't see enough evidence that that is what is going on here. Correlation is not causation.

My friends who tend to be more successful, high-powered career-women also tend to take care of themselves in other areas of their lives. Women who are organized enough to be a successful executive are often organized enough to exercise regularly.

Why isn't this the case for men? There are many possible explanations I won't go into here, which may correlate with but not necessarily indicate weight discrimination in the workplace.

I'm not saying there isn't weight discrimination. I'm just saying that the article assumes far too much, especially when there are plausible alternative explanations. Interesting article in general, though, thanks for posting.

Stephanie B said...

I don't know that anonymous' conclusions have any more basis than the ones he or she challenges.

The assumption that capable women take the time to take care of themselves - I've seen the opposite. What I've observed is that those most likely to do good work put their own needs at the bottom, particularly if they are also juggling family. Whether it is reflected in their waistline has often more to do with other factors than taking time.

But either assumption (anonymous' or mine) is a stereotype. Truth is, you can't tell how capable or effective someone is by looking at them and, until we stop thinking we can, this problem will remain.

Merit is not the driver - the appearance of merit is. For women, that appearance of merit is still tied to physical appearance.

Don't believe me? Pick up any self-help book targeting women. The standards "successful" women are held to are not the same as those for men.

Charlotte said...

It would still be nice to see some comparisons with execs a bit further down the tree, rather than with the general population. I think you'd need to see those before you could say with confidence that being overweight harms a woman's chance of promotion to the top level - no matter how intuitive and tempting it is to make that conclusion already!

Anonymous said...

Until we can look at something a bit more compelling than a correlation and some speculation, I won't be convinced that we have a good idea why women are paid less than men.

LVC said...

Whoa, major credibility blow.

Any unbiased individual with half an interest in the actual economics of a "gender wage gap", and not just the feminist sob story, knows that it is a myth; the specific $0.75 figure, doubly so.

In fact, a quick search on the 'wage gap myth' returns articles such as Perpetuating the gender pay inequity myth, The Wage Gap Myth and You're Not Earning as Much as the Guys? Here's Why. And don't worry: they are all written by women, too. Now, if you want something really provocative, you can read this one on the NYT: Exploiting the Gender Gap. This one is written by a man, but I prefer to look at it as 'this one is written by a man who was elected three times to the Board of Directors of the National Organization for Women', and who served them well until he realized reality and ideology didn't meet halfway.

I understand why researchers keep insisting on that angle, though, since research is their paycheck and the funding goes where the feminist lobbies want it to go, but I really like your blog and expected more from an aspiring scientist.

Christie Lynn said...

LVC- The reasons behind differential pay between people may be controversial and debateable, but to say that women don't make less than men is simply lying. Just look at the US census data, which clearly shows a "wage gap" (or whatever else you wish to call it), which is where the $0.75 figure comes from. I'm not saying that the gap is due to discrimination or anything specific, merely discussing an idea put forward by a scientific piece which suggests that weight is a factor. What causes it is the source for debate - and scientific research, like this study. Your articles even admit to the presence of a "gap"- though they say it's the women's choices that create it. They even say 5% is due to discrimination. Where are the scientific studies which back up their claims? If you are claiming scientific basis for your points, you have to back them up with more than journalistic speculation.

Chris said...

You are underestimating the amount of work ethic and self-discipline involved in working yourself to the level of a CEO. Anyone who can do that can get thin, and since most of us want to be thin, voila!

Christie Lynn said...

Chris - Why, then, are the guys fat? ;)