Research reveals “deeply unsettling” weight discrimination in workplace

News Article

Research has revealed that women face weight-based prejudice in the workplace – even when their body mass index (BMI) is within the healthy range, according to research led by the University of Strathclyde.

In the study, participants were asked to rate people for their suitability for jobs in the service sector, based on their appearance. Researchers found even marginal increases in weight had a negative impact on female candidates’ job prospects.

The research concluded that both men and women were likely to face weight-based discrimination during the recruitment process– but that discrimination against women was far more likely.

Professor Dennis Nickson, of Strathclyde 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.

“This study, though, shows how women, even with a medically-healthy BMI range, still face discrimination in service-sector employment.”

As part of the study, Professor Nickson asked 120 participants to ‘rate’ eight photographs of men and women on their ‘suitability’ for a customer-facing role.

“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,” he said.

“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”.

Lara Murray, an employment law specialist with Palmers said: “The law relating to gender discrimination is clear. According to the Equality Act 2010, it is unlawful to discriminate against a person’s sex, age, race, pregnancy or disability.

“However, there is no specific law prohibiting discrimination against an employee on the grounds of them being overweight/obese, which is why many companies in the service industry are able to recruit employees according to a certain ‘look’, providing of course that the ‘look’ cannot be proven to relate to a person’s gender, age or race.

“Obesity may have the effect, however, that a worker is considered to be disabled. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) recently held that a 25 stone Danish child minder was disabled. He was made redundant after 15 years’ service but alleged that his dismissal was discriminatory because of his weight and a perception that he could not do his job. The ECJ held that “If obesity has reached such a degree that it plainly hinders participation in professional life, then this can be a disability”. This case is binding across the EU and should certainly make employers consider very carefully their attitudes towards employees’ weight.”

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