Tall thin men do better than short weighty women

By Kitty Knowles 9 March 2016
Tall thing men do better than short overweight women finds BMJ. Pic: iStock/shironosov

As if there wasn't already enough bias to overcome: Now it's been found that your physical stature impacts how well you do at school, work, and life generally.

We already know that women face unconscious bias every day. We also know that minorities still have to break down barriers to get ahead in the workplace. Now it’s been revealed that your physical stature also impacts your life chances too.

Being a short man or an overweight woman is linked to lower chances in life across education, occupation, and income, say a team of UK and US researchers, led by Professor Timothy Frayling at the University of Exeter.

The findings published by The British Medical Journal (The BMJ) today, provide the strongest evidence to date that weighty women are at the biggest disadvantage, while tall men already have a leg up.

“The implications of this are that if you could take the same women, with the same intellect, the same CV, the same background, but send her through life a stone heavier, she would be about £1500 per year worse off,” said Frayling.

“If you could take the same man, a 5′ 10″ man, but make him 5′ 7″, and send him though life, he’d be about £1,500 worse off per year.”

The research

Scientists analysed genetic variants that impact both height and body mass index (BMI) across a sample of 119,000 people aged between 40 and 70.

These case studies were accessed using the UK Biobank – a database of biological information from half a million British adults.

For each individual five measures of socioeconomic status were assessed: age completing full time education, degree level education, job class, annual household income, and Townsend deprivation index (a recognised social deprivation score).

The results show that shorter height, as estimated by genetics, leads to lower levels of education, lower job status, and less income, particularly in men, and that higher BMI leads to lower income and greater deprivation in women.

“These data support evidence that height and BMI play an important partial role in determining several aspects of a person’s socioeconomic status, especially women’s BMI for income and deprivation and men’s height for education, income, and job class,” the report states.

“These findings have important social and health implications, supporting evidence that overweight people, especially women, are at a disadvantage and that taller people, especially men, are at an advantage.”

Martha Lane Fox has already called out unconscious bias against women in tech.
Martha Lane Fox has already called out unconscious bias against women in tech.

Why are the short and weighty achieving less?

It’s already established that poverty influences your height and your BMI, but this research suggests there is a causal link in the other direction.

While the study didn’t pinpoint reasons for the tall-short thin-fat disparities, researchers pointed to a range of factors they believed could be responsible.

They said, for example, that taller people could reach higher social position due to a combination of reasons relating to self-esteem, stigma, positive discrimination, and increased intelligence: While no one is about to knock anyone for being confident or intelligent, clearly we need to investigate and address any stigma or prejudice in our society.

“Clearly things like ‘are women who are a bit more overweight being discriminated against in the workplace?’ needs more investigation,” said Frayling. “Is it something about being more depressed and having a lower self-esteem? Are we as employers sitting in an interview room and subconsciously choosing the thinner woman rather than the fatter woman?”

“If that’s the case it’s clearly bad for the woman, but it’s also bad for society.”

Read the full study here, and hear directly from the research team in the video below: