posted April 9, 2009

Research Finds Bias against the Obese

On their climb to the top rungs of the corporate ladder, researchers at Hope College have found, women who are overweight appear to have it tougher than their overweight male counterparts, and both men and women who are obese face major obstacles in their quest for success in the business world.

The results appear in the article "Weight discrimination and the glass ceiling effect among top U.S. CEOs," published in the most recent issue of "Equal Opportunities International," a British journal.

The research team focused on the chief executive officers (CEOs) of "Fortune 100" and "Fortune 1000" companies, reasoning that the effects of weight-based discrimination would be most concentrated among CEOs of the nation's largest companies.

"When you look at people who are at the top of their fields, that's where you see the cumulative effect of discrimination based on factors such as race and gender. For example very few women and people of color are represented among Fortune 1000 CEOs," said the article's lead author, Dr. Patricia Roehling, a professor of psychology.  "We wondered if we'd see that same cumulative effect based on weight."

In the overall U.S. population, approximately 31 percent of adult men and 29 percent of adult women are classified as overweight, having a body mass index (BMI) between 25 and 30, while 36 percent of men and 38 percent of women are classified as obese, with a BMI above 30.

CEO size was identified using pictures of the CEOs. People with expertise at estimating weigh categorized the CEOs as either normal, overweight or obese based on their pictures.  Among the CEOs, they found, approximately 50 percent of the men and between 10 and 20 percent of the women were overweight, while approximately five percent of the men and five percent of the women were obese.

"Being mildly overweight does not appear to affect a man in his career climb. However, once he becomes obese, his weight may have a negative impact on career path. Whereas being overweight or obese appears to have a significant negative affect on women's career success," Roehling said.

The apparent weight discrimination is in addition to the challenges already faced by the group for whom the term "glass ceiling" was originally coined, since women are already underrepresented among the most senior corporate ranks.  In fact, Roehling noted, the researchers expanded their review to include the "Fortune 1000" because there was only one woman among the CEOs of the "Fortune 100" companies - and even the "Fortune 1000" CEOs included only 19 women when she initiated the study.

Roehling wrote the article with her husband Dr. Mark Roehling of the Michigan State University faculty, and Jeffrey Vandlen, Justin Blazek and William Guy, the latter three of whom are recent Hope College graduates who participated in the project as student researchers.  Continuing their work on weight-related workplace discrimination, the Roehlings are next examining the impact of legislation in Michigan that makes it illegal to discriminate against the overweight and obese.  Michigan, she noted, is one of the few states to have such legislation.