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Oct. 24, 2007

MSU-led study: Women face workplace weight discrimination

EAST LANSING, Mich. Women are 16 times more likely than men to report weight discrimination in the workplace, according to a Michigan State University-led study that provides the most dramatic evidence yet of the weight bias working women face. 

The study, featured in the October issue of Journal of Vocational Behavior, is the first to use a nationally representative sample to look at gender differences in reported weight-related employment discrimination, said Mark Roehling, MSU associate professor of human resource management and the project’s lead researcher. 

As employers search for ways to reduce health care costs, obesity has become an issue. The prevalence of obesity in the United States increased from 13 percent to 32 percent between the 1960s and 2004, according to a recent Johns Hopkins University study. 

Michigan is the only state with a law prohibiting weight discrimination in the workplace. But the new research indicates overweight women who face employment weight bias could be victims of sex discrimination, Roehling said. 

“What this research indicates is that we have different standards for men and women. We are less accepting of overweight women,” he said. “If women are experiencing workplace discrimination based on their weight 16 times more frequently than men, employers ought to be very concerned about valid sex discrimination claims.” 

Researchers randomly surveyed 2,838 current and former workers in the United States. Forty percent of respondents fell within the “normal” weight category, while 60 percent were overweight, obese or very obese, according to the body mass index. (BMI is calculated by dividing weight in kilograms by height in meters squared.) 

According to the study, weight discrimination is the most common form of workplace bias among very obese white women (more so than discrimination based on age, sex, race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or disability). It is also the second most prevalent form of workplace discrimination among obese white women (after sex discrimination). 

Among all groups of black women, race or ethnicity is the most frequent form of employment discrimination, according to the study. Roehling said previous research has shown that overweight black women are evaluated less harshly than overweight white women and that blacks are “more accepting of large body types.” 

“A large black woman is likely to think of herself as a black woman before she thinks of herself as a large person,” Roehling said. 

The research team also includes Shaun Pichler, a Ph.D. candidate at MSU, and Patricia Roehling, psychology professor at Hope College in Holland.