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Weight, Women and Work: Overcoming Bias

Many professors see obese women as lazy and stupid, which is reflected in their grades and letters of recommendation.


Dr. SevaPriya Barrier, JD

At the intersection of gender and weight lies the last bastion of discrimination: judging women and their abilities based solely by the way they look. Society’s obsession with thinness creates a weight and gender bias.

At the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) conference held in Phoenix in March 2012, two administrators from the University of Arizona, Dr. Krista Millay and Dr. SevaPriya Barrier, JD, discussed the connection and its legal implications.

Millay is the director of the school’s Women’s Resource Center. Barrier is an attorney, compliance consultant and special advisor to the dean of students in the office of institutional equity.

They agreed that there’s no need for additional laws to protect overweight or obese women from discrimination.

  • Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Later legislation included sexual harassment, pregnancy, age and disability.
  • Title IX removed gender barriers to educational programs and activities at schools receiving federal aid.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act, specifically portions (AA)/504, opened the door to college for the disabled.

Obesity seldom qualifies as a disability since it’s considered self-inflicted, except in rare cases. Discrimination occurs in the problems related to obesity. If an obese student is unable to walk long distances, the disability is not her weight but her inability to walk.

Claiming a disability

Weight hides many instances of sex discrimination. What appear to be neutral policies can contribute to it.

Disparate treatment, disparate impact or harassment are the basic elements of a discrimination claim. To claim disparate treatment, a person must be a member of a protected class that’s received unfavorable treatment as a result of membership and/or has received damage, injury or loss as a result of the disparate treatment.

Under disparate impact, practices may be considered discriminatory and illegal if they have a disproportionate adverse impact on members of the protected group without legitimate justification. If all students over 5’ 10” get 10 bonus points on a quiz, it is disparate impact since men are usually taller than women.

Harassment is unwelcome behavior based on a protected classification. It could be by creating a hostile environment.

Defining the problem

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines “overweight” as having a body mass index (BMI) between 25.0 and 29.9. Those with BMIs of 30.0 or above are “obese.”

Using those markers, 60% of U.S. adults are overweight or obese. Adult women are slightly less likely to be overweight than adult men; the sexes are the same in obesity.

There’s greater negativity associated with women being overweight. People report a visual preference for women who are smaller than average and for men who are larger than average, which promotes women’s eating disorders. About 10 million U.S. women are bulimic or anorexic and 25 million do binge eating.

In the workplace overweight people face discrimination in hiring, promotion, salary, insurance and termination. The burden falls more heavily on women.

Why the disparity? Society holds men to a medical weight standard while holding women to an aesthetic standard that’s reflected in their pay. Women experience a “wage penalty” at lower weights than men, who don’t hit the penalty until they’re 100 pounds or more over a normal weight.

A University of Florida study showed that women who weigh 25 pounds below average earn $12,000 more a year. Those who weigh 25 pounds above earn $14,000 less. Yet overweight men earn more than those of average weight. As men gain weight, their salaries continue to grow.

Impact on students

Students who are overweight often lack educational success. Bullying and ostracizing make high school a nightmare for them, so they’re less likely to go to college.

Studies and anecdotal evidence confirm that attractive students receive more rewards from teachers, better grades and more help. Their performance is judged by weight, and those who are aesthetically pleasing get higher grades.

As a group, obese women are less likely to apply or attend college or graduate. They are less engaged with college life and social groups. The reverse is true for obese men. College admissions officers have an active bias in admissions and enrollment. Many professors see obese women as lazy and stupid, which is reflected in their grades and letters of recommendation.

The intersection of race, gender and weight is a triple whammy for minority women. They’re further rejected if they come from a lower socio-economic class.

Friends and family also treat obese women poorly. Friends see them as not sexually attractive or desirable enough to be included in the popular group. They get less support from parents, who have no problems with their obese sons.

Prevention strategies

Today’s trend toward making campuses healthier may place more pressure on overweight and obese students, especially women. Health promotions should emphasize positive habits, not image.

What helps to combat weight/gender discrimination? Institutional policies can include size in accessibility planning. Allow all students to receive accommodations and promote “blind grading” in classrooms where possible. Images used in PR and admissions materials should include positive images of women of various sizes. Make sure to welcome and support women of all sizes.

Millay: krista@email.arizona.edu  or 520.621.3398

Barrier: sevapriya@email.arizona.edu  or 520.621.9181


Santovec, Mary Lou. (2012,July). Weight, Women and Work: Overcoming Bias. Women in Higher Education, 21(7), 21.

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