Cornell study: Being overweight in workplace an advantage for men, but not women


Want to have more heft in the office? Weight will help, but only if you’re a man.

A new study at Cornell University found overweight men in the workplace are perceived as more persuasive than their thinner male co-workers, according to the Huffington Post. However, researchers at Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management also found that overweight women do not get the same advantage.

“In contrast with research that highlights the stigma that is commonly associated with being overweight, we … find that the anthropological concept of ‘big men’ can carry literal meaning,” study authors Kevin M. Kniffin, Vicki L. Bogan and David R. Just wrote.

“While the ‘big man’ leadership concept is based on studies of pre-industrial societies where weight embodied status, our findings suggest an evolved bias to favor moderately big men–with respect to perceived persuasiveness–even in environments where there is no reason to interpret over-consumption of food and conservation of energy as a signal of wealth.”

The Ithaca school’s paper actually cites six individual studies to determine that weight among men is positively associated with perceived persuasiveness, much like how height is often associated with perceived strong leadership. (A past study found that taller candidates win presidential elections three out of five times, and receive the majority of the popular vote two out of three times.)

Researchers found that descriptions like “heavyweight,” “gravitas,” and “not being a pushover” were considered positive, and a sign of leadership traits like persuasiveness. Respondents similarly agreed that people with “gravitas” were more likely to be overweight, but not obese.

But when it came to comparing genders, weight became a burden for women.

According to career advice blog The Ladders, the fourth study in Cornell’s larger overall study asked respondents to rate drawings of heavy women and men to determine how persuasive, extroverted, humorous, and physically attractive each person would be in real life. Overweight and obese males were seen as persuasive, but persuasiveness declined for females with larger bodies.

But when the researchers dialed down on gender, they found that larger men and women were not judged to be equally persuasive. Respondents were asked to rate drawings of men and women of various body sizes on how persuasive they expected the person to be. Overweight and obese males were seen as more persuasive, but perceived persuasiveness declined linearly for females drawn as overweight and obese.

Kniffin told HuffPost that the findings suggest that “biases in relation to being relatively big” have “opposite impacts for women and men,” possibly because women “carry the extra burden of societal expectations of physical beauty.”

The findings match previous studies suggesting weight discrimination between men and women. A 2012 study found overweight women are less likely to get hired — 42 percent of HR professionals disqualified one obese female in a group of six hypothetical job applicants, while only 19 percent disqualified the one obese male candidate.

“Most generally, while weight–and height–have obvious relevance for work that involves physical activity, there is no clear reason why weight per se should directly impact the performance of people engaged in non-manual labor such as political service (e.g., Governor or President),” Cornell researchers said. “In that respect, employers should be particularly sensitive to the varied ways in which weight colors their perceptions of people with regard to hiring and promotion decisions.”



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