Women face more weight-based prejudice in the workplace than men even when their body mass index is within the healthy range, according to a new study.
In the study led by Professor Dennis Nickson of the University of Strathclyde, participants were asked to rate people for their suitability for jobs in the service sector, based on their appearance.
‘By acknowledging and confronting the unconscious biases and prejudices and providing more training for service industry managers, gender-based discrimination can be prevented.’
The study asked 120 participants to rate eight pictures of men and women for their suitability for jobs working in a customer-facing role, such as a waiter or sales assistant in a shop, and for a non-customer facing role, such as a kitchen porter or stock assistant.
Participants in the study were told that applicants were equally qualified and were shown faces that reflected a 'normal' weight and a subtle 'heavier' face.
Researchers found even marginal increases in weight had a negative impact on female candidates' job prospects.
It is already know that overweight or obese people are systematically discriminated against in almost all areas of public life. They are believed to be less competent at their jobs and are less likely to get hired, even overweight or obese doctors are seen as less trustworthy. The phenomenon is often termed "fat phobia", meaning a fear of and hatred of heavier body sizes.
Professor Dennis Nickson, who is based at the University's Department of Human Resource Management, said, "Many organisations in the service sector, such as shops, bars and hotels, seek to employ people with the right 'look' which will fit with their corporate image. A key element of a person's look is their weight."
Workplace discrimination against those of anything other than 'normal' weight is not new. A large number of studies have highlighted how people who are obese or overweight suffer from bias when they look for employment.
This study, though, shows how women, even within a healthy Body Mass Index range, still face discrimination in service sector employment.
The research, published in the journal PLOS ONE
, was carried out in partnership with University of St Andrews academics Dr Andrew Timming and Professor David Perrett and the University of Toronto's Dr Daniel Re.
Professor Nickson said, "The results found that both women and men face challenges in a highly 'weight-conscious' labour market, especially for customer-facing roles. However, women faced far more discrimination.
"We found that women, even within a normal Body Mass Index range, suffered greater weight-based bias compared to men who were overtly overweight," Nickson said.
"The findings raise a number of practical implications, both ethically and from a business point of view. Ethically, the results of the study are deeply-unsettling from the viewpoint of gender inequality in the workplace, highlighting the unrealistic challenges women face against societal expectations of how they should look," he added.