In the workplace, your word may carry more weight if you’re a man who is seen as overweight. A recent study from Cornell University’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management found that overweight men were judged to be more persuasive than their male peers. The same benefit did not extend to overweight women.
“In contrast with research that highlights the stigma that is commonly associated with being overweight, we … find that the anthropological concept of ‘big men’ can carry literal meaning,” wrote study authors Kevin M. Kniffin, Vicki L. Bogan and David R. Just.
Their research also suggests that “biases in relation to being relatively big” have “opposite impacts for women and men,” Kniffin told HuffPost.
Overweight men and women are not judged the same.
“Heavyweight,” “gravitas,” “not being a pushover” ― these everyday words and phrases suggest a positive relationship between influence and body mass. And across six individual studies, the Cornell researchers found that participants did see extra weight as a sign of valuable leadership traits like persuasiveness.
In one study, respondents agreed most strongly with the statement that “heavy people are more likely to be perceived as persuasive.” In a separate study, they estimated that a person with gravitas would weigh more.
But when the researchers dialed down on gender, they found that larger men and women were not judged to be equally persuasive. Respondents were asked to rate drawings of men and women of various body sizes on how persuasive they expected the person to be. Overweight and obese males were seen as more persuasive, but perceived persuasiveness declined linearly for females drawn as overweight and obese.
Kniffin told HuffPost that explaining those gender differences would warrant a separate set of focused studies. But perhaps it’s because bigger women carry the extra burden of societal expectations of physical beauty.
Rebecca Puhl, deputy director of the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, pointed to the premium that our society places on being thin. While men and women are both vulnerable to weight stigma and discrimination, we have “very stringent and strict ideals of female physical attractiveness, and if women deviate from these expected ideals, if their bodies are larger, they tend to be penalized,” Puhl told HuffPost.
Perceived leadership is not the only area where overweight women face bias on the job.
Other research backs up the existence of gender differences in weight bias. As a person’s body mass index increases, so does the rate of weight discrimination, and the rates are higher for women than for men.
Overweight men and women are judged differently on their ability to lead politically. College students in a 2010 study published in the journal Obesity evaluated hypothetical male candidates with a larger body size more positively than their female counterparts. “The ability of obese female candidates to be successful may depend less on their policy positions or even party affiliation and more on their physical attributes than previously assumed,” the study’s authors concluded.
Weight discrimination is also embedded in every step of the employment cycle. Overweight women are seen as less desirable in the hiring process. When 127 experienced human resources professionals were asked to evaluate job candidates in a 2012 study, 42% disqualified the one obese female candidate in a group of six hypothetical candidates and 19% disqualified the one obese male candidate.
This discrimination persists even after overweight professionals are hired. Research finds that larger-sized professionals, especially larger women, are more likely to earn lower salaries and are less likely to be promoted.
As the Cornell study highlights, weight can sometimes be an asset when it comes to certain leadership characteristics. But that doesn’t override the greater problem of weight discrimination.
The Cornell researchers even said as much, noting that they didn’t want men to use their research as a reason to put on weight. “Our findings do not suggest that men should acquire more weight to be viewed as more persuasive,” the study concluded. “Our studies do invite closer recognition of benefits that might accrue alongside costs when people carry above-normal weight.”