The weight bias against women in the workforce is real — and it's only getting worse
"Pat, you think I eat too much?" Ginni Rometty asked her boss Pat O'Brien at IBM, more than 30 years ago.
O'Brien was talking to Rometty about her weight, exhorting her to get in "good physical shape" if she wanted to become a high-level executive. Rometty recounts she'd been "chubby" as a little girl. "Gaining and losing weight was a cycle" she was all too familiar with.
But it was the first time her appearance had come up as an obstacle to her career aspirations — though it didn't stop her. Rometty went on to become the first female CEO of IBM, in its 100-year history.
She recounts this incident in her memoir "Good Power," released last month. She actually gained weight after that conversation, so her weight didn't hinder her own career. But Rometty acknowledges that women are judged more harshly than men on appearance in the workplace, and she laments that nothing has changed
Indeed, study after study over decades has shown that the workplace can impose an unfair weight penalty on women who are seen as overweight or obese.
Women are penalized, while men are spared
"Heavier women tend to earn less," the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis said in a 2011 report, which analyzed the results of multiple studies on the topic. "These penalties have not only increased over the past few decades, but continue to increase as women age."
However, men don't seem to face a similar weight bias. Some studies even found that white males seen as overweight actually earn more. However, the wage penalty for women seen as overweight was consistent in each study.
Economist David Lempert, who worked for the U.S. government for over a decade, found in his analysis that an increase of 10% in a woman's body mass decreased her income by 6%. This wage cut comes on top of the fact that women already earn 20% less on average than men in the U.S.
"So, when you add the penalty for being a woman, plus the penalty for being overweight, for instance, that net penalty is quite large," said Lempert who worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics when he did the analysis, but has since left the government and now works as an economist at the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. "The other side of the coin is that there's an increasing premium for thin women."
People can even be fired for being seen as overweight because it isn't a protected category under the federal worker protection agency the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Some lawmakers around the country are trying to change that. Currently, there is a bill making its way in New York City and also another one in New York state that will prohibit discrimination against people based on weight. Massachusetts and New Jersey too have introduced similar bills which will join bans that already exist in a handful of states like Michigan and Washington and cities like San Francisco.
That bias toward people seen as overweight has worsened over time.
A Harvard University study analyzed data from over 4 million tests of attitudes between 2007 and 2016. The analysis found that while biases towards sexual orientation, race and skin tone decreased in that period, weight bias (pro-thin/anti-fat) increased by 40%, particularly in the early years of the study.
"It's very disturbing that weight bias is increasing as the number of people who are experiencing it are also increasing," says Tessa Charlesworth, a research fellow in psychology at Harvard University, who has worked on analyzing the data.
The worsening attitudes towards weight comes as the number of obese adults in the U.S. has catapulted to 42% of the population, from 34% in 2008 and 23% in 1994, according to government data.
While it's unclear what's led to this rising weight bias, Charlesworth suggests that there's the perception that body weight is under one's own control, compared to race or skin color.
Another worrisome reason: Social media.
"Think of the thinspiration of social media influencers," Charlesworth says.
Data shows that users spend hours looking at idealized bodies on Instagram or TikTok feeds, which has a huge effect on their psyche. An investigation by the Wall Street Journal revealed that Instagram's internal researchers found its site made body image issues worse for one-in-three teen girls.
Female executives can pay a larger pay penalty
As women age, the effect of weight on their wealth gets worse. The National Institutes of Health published a report that found that the financial net worth of moderately to severely obese women ages 51 to 61 was 40% lower than that of normal-weight peers.
The same cohort of women's net worth fell even more to 60% of their counterparts when they were 57 to 67 years of age. No such pattern could be found for men, the report found.
Economist Lempert said in his research that overweight women started work with lower wages and throughout their careers receive less frequent raises and promotions leading to a big impact in their cumulative wages as they age.
When Lempert drilled down further, his research also found that as women climb higher in the ranks it can get worse: Overweight female executives in the top echelons can see as much as a 16% wage penalty.
It's probably for these reasons that IBM's former CEO Rometty doesn't blame her manager Pat O'Brien for his honest advice, though she acknowledges the topic was "inappropriate" and would be "completely unacceptable" today.
He was preparing her for a world that perceived women differently. Rometty said O'Brien had twice nominated her for manager of the year.
But it still was the first time her appearance was pointed out as a factor that could overshadow her skills and work ethic if she wanted to pursue high level executive roles.
"Most seem to be in good physical shape," O'Brien had said, adding: "Consider how senior executives look ... and how they dress. They wear suits."
Rometty preferred dresses with a "touch of flair" in her twenties, and was basically being told that she should give them up for what she called "monochromatic skirts, blazers ... cookie-cutter conservative."
He wanted her to fit in to get ahead. She doesn't remember if she gave up her dresses and bought a slew of suits.
But the comments stayed with her long enough that Rometty still vividly recalls the incident three decades later. It's a reminder of the effect that biases on weight can have on women, which they continue to face today.