The Relationship Between Weight and Salary: Bad News For All Kinds of People

Topic: Fairness, Gender, Selection
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (JAN 2011)
Article: When It Comes to Pay, Do the Thin Win? The Effect of Weight on Pay for Men and Women
Authors: T.A. Judge, D.M. Cable
Reviewed By: Ben Sher

Does career success have anything to do with what you look like?  According to a recent study by Judge and Cable (2011), the answer is yes. 

From the same people who explained that height may influence salary (Judge & Cable, 2004), now it seems weight can also influence salary.  Drawing from cultivation theory, or the idea that people are slowly drawn to accept social norms promoted by the media, they say it literally pays to be the “ideal” weight. 

So what exactly is the “ideal” weight?  Not surprisingly, the answer is different for men and women.  The authors say underweight men are actually punished with smaller salaries, presumably because they have violated gender-role norms by being too skinny.  Men are paid more with increased weight, up to the point of obesity, when salaries start to gradually decline.  For women, a very different pattern emerged.  Underweight women had the highest salaries, and salaries decreased with additional weight gain. 

But not all weight gain is equal.  In one study, the salary decrease between average versus underweight women was twice the decrease between average weight women and overweight women.  According to the researchers, this is because the media has long been portraying increasingly thinner women as being ideally attractive, and the workplace has discriminated accordingly.  Once women violate this ideal and become average weight, they may already be seen as “letting themselves go” so any further weight gain isn’t as detrimental.  

These results came from two detailed studies that examined participants’ weight and salary, while controlling for a plethora of variables that could also influence salary.  These include age, health, type of job, marital status, education, and several others.  The differences in salary due to weight amounted to thousands of dollars in each study, underscoring the importance of studying this phenomenon. 

This research is important, say the authors, because any individual differences not related to job performance may present a form of discrimination that should be acknowledged and eliminated.  In this study, they suggest that weight discrimination is not limited to the obese, but instead disparately affects both men and women across all weight levels.  

Judge, T.A., & Cable, D.M. (2011).  When It Comes to Pay, Do the Thin Win? The Effect of Weight on Pay for Men and Women.  Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(1), 95-112.