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Gaining even a few kilos makes people less employable – particularly women

Job searching made more difficult. Shutterstock

What does it take to be successful in a job interview? Many people don’t realise that our skills, knowledge and abilities are only partially responsible. Our appearance, particularly whether hiring managers find us attractive, also plays an important part. This is particularly true for jobs in frontline services.

Being overweight is a significant obstacle to employability, especially for women. Researchers have confirmed time and again that overweight or obese job applicants are much less likely than those of a “normal” weight to succeed in an interview or gain a promotion.

Overweight people also suffer from negative perceptions based on stereotypes that are often inaccurate. These are reinforced by media representations of the “ideal” woman (or man) as unrealistically thin.

The weighting game. OPOJA

Our research

To see how far this discrimination goes, my colleagues and I looked into whether even subtle weight gain within a healthy range of body mass index (BMI) could negatively affect employability.

We started with photographs of four men and four women, all with BMIs in the healthy/normal range (typically defined as 18.5 to 24.9). We then used specialised software to add weight to their faces so that we created two versions of each person: a “normal” one and a “heavier” one. But whereas the heavier men’s faces put them in the overweight BMI range (25.0 to 29.9), the heavier women were still within a healthy range.

We showed these photographs to 120 participants and asked them to rate each face on employability across a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 the lowest and 7 the highest. Participants were told to assume these were job applicants who were all equally qualified for the position in question.

We showed the participants all the photographs twice. On the first pass they had to assume the position was for a customer-facing job such as a waiter, while in the second pass they had to assume it was for a non-customer facing job such as a chef in a kitchen. We assumed the participants would give the heavier faces a better score on the second pass than the first pass, given the absence of any customer interaction for the second role.

What we found

Our assumption was correct for the heavier men. They rated significantly lower than the original faces for the customer facing job, yet for the backroom job there was no significant difference. On the other hand, the heavier women were rated significantly less employable than the original faces in both customer facing and backroom jobs. This was in spite of the fact that the heavier women were still in the healthy BMI range.

What does this tell us? It appears that even subtle weight gain can have a huge impact on employability, especially for women. Women on the heavier side of healthy appear to suffer more in the labour market than overtly overweight men. By the same token, even subtle weight loss can apparently improve your chances of success in a job interview – particularly if you are a woman.

These findings are alarming. They are a reflection of the unrealistic standards of beauty that many women, and to a lesser extent men face in society today. To combat weight-based discrimination, we need to encourage hiring managers to “audit” their unconscious biases and focus on job applicants’ inner skills and experiences. Either that or we’ll have to wait until societal standards of attractiveness become more realistic – and that could be a long wait.

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