Weight Stigma in the Workplace and Beyond

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Jessica Richman

In 2017, jobs site Fairygodboss showed a picture of a larger-bodied woman to 500 hiring professionals and asked if they would consider employing her. Only 15.6% of respondents said they would. Furthermore, one in five respondents described the woman as “lazy” and 21% referred to her as “unprofessional.” An older study from 2015 found that 45 percent of employers were “less inclined to recruit a candidate they considered obese.” The study also found that “obese people are less likely to be regarded as able leaders.” 

As fat people continue to be discriminated against in the workplace, we simultaneously read stories of them having horrible everyday experiences, whether trying to shop for clothing at their local retailers, attempting to comfortably and quietly eat a meal at a restaurant, or simply trying to have a dignified medical appointment where they are heard and respected. 

When I look at these two sets of circumstances, I find it no coincidence they are occurring at the same time. 

Part of the reason why fat people have a harder time with everyday experiences compared to their smaller-bodied counterparts can be attributed to workplace weight-based discrimination, stigma, and bias. This results in a lack of size diversity in companies, in particular in the leadership and/or strategy departments, which leads to poor decision-making and missed opportunities when it comes to serving higher-weight populations. 

Greater diversity of size is important to the future of many organizations, as having employees who reflect the actual size of the population can help them understand opportunities to better serve customers—opportunities that they either get wrong, miss, or choose to ignore.  

For the past two years, I have attended theCURVYcon, “a two day event that brings plus size Brands, Fashionistas, Shopaholics, Bloggers and YouTubers into one space, to chat curvy, shop curvy and embrace curvy.” Both times I attended, it was very clear from chatting with my fellow attendees that there was a belief that apparel brands who have “plus-size” women on the “plus-size” design or buying teams led with authenticity and also created clothes that were not only more attractive, but better-fitting.   

In 2015, McKinsey reviewed the financial results and management composition of the boards of 366 public companies in Canada, Latin America, the US, and the UK. They discovered that the more racially and ethnically diverse companies were 35% more likely to have higher financial returns. With regards to the companies that had higher gender diversity, that number was 15%. 

Although there are no numbers associated with what happens when you hire and promote people who are a range of diverse sizes, I would venture to guess, especially in healthcare and consumer oriented firms, that these companies will be able to more successfully meet customer needs, which will lead to better business outcomes. 

I chose to write about this specific topic during NEDA’s Weight Stigma Awareness Week because, no matter what shape or size we are, all customers (and businesses) benefit when there is diversity of thought in design and innovation. 

If you are in a leadership, diversity, or strategy role at your company, I encourage you to look at the following: 

1) Consider how weight-bias and discrimination may be affecting your organization. Think about the interesting types of product innovation that could occur if you actually had people of various sizes in your organization (particularly in leadership roles). 

2) lf this topic makes you uncomfortable, and you keep thinking about how weight-bias is still acceptable because it is always the fault of the individual with “weight-issues,” dig deeper to understand where those assumptions came from, and how they are getting in the way of you and your organization. 

3) If you are really interested in organizational change and making a statement to the rest of the world that your company cares about and recognizes weight-bias and discrimination, consider the following: 

A few years back, Salesforce ran a salary assessment to understand the gender pay gap and also gain more information on race and ethnic pay gaps. They then adjusted pay to even out pay across genders, races, and ethnicities. Many companies followed Salesforce’s leadership. Size was never mentioned. 

I dare your organization to consider looking at salary inequalities due to size. There are intricacies as to how this would be done, and you would want to do it in a safe and respectful way. Taking this action would illustrate that you are taking this issue seriously and will provide an example to other companies. 

In conclusion, A. Janet Tomiyama, PhD, of the Department of Psychology at the University of California Los Angeles and director of the UCLA Dieting, Stress, and Health Laboratory and colleagues suggests that the actual impact of weight stigma is more harmful than “obesity” itself. 

By not having, and by fearing diversity of size in the workplace, companies are missing out on business opportunities. They are also making the world a more difficult place for higher weight people by further stigmatizing them.

Jessica Richman is the founder and CEO of The Visible Collective. The Visible Collective advises companies on product development, marketing, and new business development to better serve the 71% of higher weight customers in the U.S.