Whether we like to admit it or not, appearances matter in the workplace, and can even impact pay and career progression. In her research on women and weight-based employment discrimination, Alexandra Griffin suggests the issue is so severe that it could explain the wage gap:
“…weight-based discrimination, which affects nearly two-thirds of women, is part of the explanation of the wage gap affecting women.”
Although many of us would like to believe it’s not as pervasive as Griffin suggests, studies indicate this isn’t just a fad. We spoke with a woman working in the financial services industry who feels that her career ups and downs are largely correlated to her weight. Here is her story:
I’ve always struggled with my weight—I’ll be the first to admit it. But for me, the most frustrating part of my fluctuating weight has always been seeing how differently I am treated depending on what end of the scale I happen to be near at any given time.
When I started my first job out of college as a Client Relations Manager, I was a bit overweight. But, I was great at what I did, and our clients loved me, so no one ever said anything. During my annual review, my work ethic, accuracy and diligence were highlighted as my strengths. The following year, after losing 20 pounds, I received a raise, a promotion, and that year’s annual review used terms like “approachable” and “great client-facing skills.” Maybe it was just a function of another year of experience, but I did find it odd my work ethic and diligence were not included.
Of course, I had no cause to complain—I looked great, was advancing within the firm and making more money. Who in her right mind would balk at that? I enjoyed the benefits as long as I could. People complimented me on my appearance at work, invited me to meetings and social events, and took me to meet clients, even though I was the most junior person on the team. I felt great, and truly thought I was moving up because of my abilities. It never occurred to me my weight had anything to do with it.
Until I gained it all back, and then some. I was repeatedly asked by my boss and colleagues if I was “still working out” and offered a variety of unsolicited nutrition and exercise advice. One evening at happy hour, I expressed my frustration that everyone seemed to be excluding me from important meetings to one of my male colleagues. He then proceeded to tell me, as politely as he could, that “You just don’t seem to be taking care of yourself as much anymore…” I looked down at what I was wearing, and realized he wasn’t talking about my attire. Trying not to sound hurt, I asked if he was referring to my weight, and he admitted he was.
I fought back tears of both anger and humiliation. On one hand, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, but on the other, I didn’t exactly disagree with him. I didn’t like how I looked either, which just added to the subtle implication that it was completely my fault my career was going nowhere. If I’d just “taken care of myself” I’d be at the top of my game.
Then, as if what he’d revealed wasn’t enough, he went on, in what I think was an attempt to motivate me, to tell me “You know what you need to do. If you can get yourself back in shape, you’ll be unstoppable. You’ll have these guys wrapped around your little finger.”