Monday, 14 March 2011

When it pays to weigh: different effects of weight gain on income for men and women

Weight matters to boxers, jockeys and gymnasts, but for the rest of us it's not high on our radar during work hours. However, increasing evidence suggests that consideration of body size affects how employees are evaluated in the workplace. A study from late last year tells us more about the troubling relationship between weight and pay – and how it works differently for men and women.

While much previous research on the “wage penalty” of obesity has been in the economics literature, Timothy Judge and Daniel Cable take a psychological approach. They acknowledge that the stereotyping literature provides some plausible psychological mechanisms: for instance, people who are obese are judged as less agreeable, less emotionally stable, less extraverted, and less conscientious than their lighter peers, despite this being untrue.

However, they point out that how these stereotypes come in to play may be different for men and women. Cultivation theory – the idea that what we see as desirable is shaped by media images – suggests that we may be relaxed about larger men, because being robust and solid is an image depicted more attractively than that of being thin. In contrast, 'average media woman' weighs much less than average real woman. Therefore, what we deem as overweight may be wildly different across sex.

Judge and Cable took these insights to two data sets taken from census studies: a German one of around 11,000 people, and 8,000 in a US sample involving data from fifteen reporting occasions, taken biannually. In both cases, participants were from a variety of jobs, and a ream of control variables were accounted for - from height to having kids to self-esteem. The US data had the additional advantage of allowing within-individual analysis: by looking at how losses and gains of weight affect a person's pay, we avoid the issues of whether both weight and financial destiny were determined by a birth variable that wasn't accounted for.

In line with hypotheses, the study found that for women the penalty of being heavier was twice as great when moving from very thin to average weight, compared to a move from average to heavy. The researchers see this as cultivation theory in action: women are punished if they deviate from the media ideal of skinniness, and even average weight represents betrayal. Any further deviations are almost academic. Meanwhile for men, the opposite was found: more weight actually means more pay, until a certain point where the weight finally begins to exact a cost, but one much smaller than that of being underweight.

The findings generalised across both sample groups, suggesting that this relationship isn't specific to a single national culture. Part of it could be that ideal-sized people have a genuine edge in some work situations (eg being judged as reliable or persuasive by their clients) but the broadness of the effect suggests an influencing factor common to most jobs: being recruited by and working alongside others who favour you more or less.

The authors conclude by acknowledging the troubling nature of their finding, but suggest that “it may be possible and competitively advantageous for employers to try and recognize – and then reduce – the role that weight plays in their employment decisions.”

You will be delighted to know that the paper is freely available on Timothy Judge's homepage. Judge, T., & Cable, D. (2011). When it comes to pay, do the thin win? The effect of weight on pay for men and women. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96 (1), 95-112 DOI: 10.1037/a0020860


  1. This is mostly true because taller men get higher pay, promoted more often, etc. However, this doesn't take into account that height is a better indicator than weight.

    Men that are short, fat and bald are also in the 'heavy' category but are likely to be paid less than the average male.

  2. Hi Eileen

    I'm in full agreement that height affects career outcomes in men. There's a study on it by the same authors here in fact, and it's also freely available.

    In this instance, the investigators were keen to account for this so height was always measured and controlled for in the effects they were looking at.

    In the first study, height was used as a control variable, meaning that the authors were looking for effects over and above that of height. The second study went even further by looking for within-person weight and pay changes over time. As height is pretty much fixed for most working-age adults, the effects they found of pay changes can be pretty directly attributed to weight.

    It's worth noting that in their preliminary analyses for each study, the investigators replicated the effect of height on pay found previously.

    One thing you are pointing to is that hidden within the overall effect may be some interesting interactions. Could the effect be primarily driven by a subset of the sample, for instance taller men, where being light may have been cultivated by our culture as 'lanky', and being fuller framed as 'leader'? The investigators don't report testing for any interactions, so it is a possibility.