Need another reason to stress out about your weight? New research suggests that weight affects the way executives’ stamina and competence are perceived on the job. As the Wall Street Journal sums it up, “staying trim is now virtually required for anyone on track for the corner office.” But how can you write a story like this without mentioning gender?
The nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership recently compiled years of data including peer-performance reviews and health screening results for more than 750 CEOs and other senior managers who participate in its leadership workshops. Researchers found that weight “may indeed” (wiggle words, but still) affect perceptions of leadership among a leader’s employees, peers, and superiors. The executives with BMIs under 25 were ranked more favorably by their peers in both interpersonal skills and task performance. One leadership professor says he can’t name a single Fortune 500 CEO who’s overweight. “We have stereotypes about fat,” he says, “so when we see a senior executive who’s overweight, our initial reaction isn’t positive.”
The Journal talks to a 44-year-old general manager at a Pennsylvania guitar maker who was inspired to lose weight after glimpsing his “gut” on camera during a public speaking exercise. He wondered what his colleagues thought of his appearance. “Would they think, ‘If he can’t keep his hand out of the cookie jar, how can he do his job?’” Indeed, he describes his peer evaluations as harsh. Now he’s hitting the gym three days a week and eating healthier. He’s lost about 25 pounds in four months.
Perversely, the move toward weight consciousness can be read as a sign that just about everyone takes work/life balance seriously these days. Once, executives were supposed to give up everything — including time to exercise — for their jobs; now, people admire a balanced approach. Of course, in this universe, “balance” means time for exercise, vacations, speech-giving, social media, conferences, and oh yeah, time at the office, too. That’s a high bar — but at least it includes room for more than just gobbling burgers at your desk. One fitness and leadership consultant says that the sudden deaths of several high-profile CEOs, including two McDonald’s CEOs, helped bring the issue into focus. “It’s the leadership image you project,” says a 47-year-old senior executive director who has lost 25 pounds since last summer. “Folks do see how you live.”
21st-century CEOs also find themselves in front of cameras much more than previous generations of leaders. Combine that with a culture in which fitness is associated with self-control, and you have the expectation that fitness = competence.
The one thing the Wall Street Journal doesn’t mention is whether there’s any difference between how men and women are evaluated when it comes to weight. The article briefly mentions that the study controlled for gender, but the reporter interviews only male executives, most of whom set out to lose weight because of career concerns (and seem to have lost it pretty easily).
But men are not the whole story here: Overweight women are judged much more severely than overweight men in our culture. Just this week, a study found that male jurors judge overweight women more harshly than slim women in court; male defendants’ weight had no impact on verdicts. A 2010 study found that gaining weight is significantly more damaging than it is for men; women deemed “very heavy” lost about $19,000 in annual earnings compared to average women.
Combine that environment with the simple biological fact that women tend to gain weight after they have children, and again at menopause, and you don’t exactly have a recipe for gender equity in the senior ranks of leadership. If weight has indeed become a major factor in career advancement, it’s important to talk about what this means for women.